PJ and Mary Ruth Grumley recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their opening of Paducah’s first fast-food franchise.
It was the summer of 1962—humid with scattered clouds, 93 degrees, and barely a breeze. However, at 9th and Kentucky Avenue a storm was brewing. The first 15-cent hamburger was sold at the newly opened Burger Chef restaurant. A new concept in dining had blown into Paducah. The first “fast food” franchise had opened its doors and was serving hamburgers, French fries, and milk shakes.
PJ Grumley and his partner, Lou Hussman, had discovered that Burger Chef franchises were available in Paducah, Sikeston, Nashville, and Cape Girardeau. Both men had a strong religious background and found that not only did Paducah offer an advantageous business atmosphere, but also a Lutheran grade school at St. Paul Lutheran church. PJ and his wife, Mary Ruth, had four children and found the environment in Paducah to be attractive.
Quality food served quickly was a very attractive alternative to the people of Paducah. Downtown Paducah was the commercial center of western Kentucky and traffic was heavy at the corner of 9th and Kentucky Avenue. Grumley’s emphasis on quality and cleanliness were well accepted.
“I was distressed that some customers threw hamburger wrappers out onto the parking lot,” Grumley remembers. “We had someone regularly scanning the lot for trash and keeping the place clean and neat. Soon customers were themselves putting trash into the waste cans.”
At that time, the young men and women on the front line had to remember the exact combination of pickle, mustard, ketchup, and cheese to be put on each sandwich. They had to yell to the back line the order: “three cheeseburgers, one with mustard and pickles, one with onions and ketchup, and one plain, two French fries and one hamburger with everything. Then he or she would have to make the milkshake or pour the soft drink,” Grumley adds. “The order was delivered over the counter to the customer and had to be rung up on the cash register and then the server had to MAKE CHANGE. Math had to be involved!”
Grumley extended the opportunity to get a job to many young people in Paducah. For most it was their first job. After a shift at the Burger Chef, most understood the value of hard work along with the rewards—and the penalties of a mistake.
“I always thought the responsibility of being in business was working with young people in their first job,“ said Grumley. “I felt it was my responsibility to teach them how to get along with others, to accept responsibility, to have ambition.”
“I remember working the front line and taking an order from a man, who, as it turned, out was a short change artist. Somehow I ended up giving the man an extra $5 in change,” the owner’s son, Dr. Paul Grumley, clearly remembers. “This was discovered that evening when the registers were cleared. My dad deducted the $5 dollars from my next paycheck. Tough love!”
Unfortunately, corporate Burger Chef was not as successful as the local franchise. The Burger Chef founder sold the national franchises to General Foods in1968. By that time competition in the fast food industry had become intense, and eventually Hardees bought the Burger Chefs and made the transition to their own chain.
Then came Kentucky Oaks mall. Business traffic screeched to a halt and the fast food business suffered. Grumley decided to sell the building on Kentucky Avenue, which had become a restaurant called Pleasers.
Grumley assumed many roles during his career, one of which was serving as a Paducah city commissioner—a post to which he was elected for nine terms. Grumley took full retirement in 1998 but continued to be active on civic committees and at his church. His family, friends, and former employees joined in a special 50th anniversary celebration in July to honor the birth of fast food in Paducah.