In honor of Cincinnati Burger week, I thought I’d tell the story of another legacy double decker I discovered over the weekend. I’m always on the lookout for great vintage Cincinnati restaurant memorabilia. One of those explorations took me to Covered Bridge Antiques in Mt. Healthy where I found a fifties matchbook that had a cool burger guy logo on the front. Turning it over I saw that it was a local joint I had never heard of. After snagging it for a deal, and doing a bit of research my eyes opened to another great Cincinnati burger story. And, like the Big Tucker in Over-the-Rhine, it has Appalachian routes. This double decker was called the Country Boy and was the signature burger for a still successful line of restaurants called Country Kitchen, founded in Cincinnati. Like the Cincinnati Big Boy, it was dressed in cheddar cheese, pickles, lettuce and special tartar sauce.
Like Escom Garth Tucker, founder of the Big Tucker Double Decker, Country Kitchen’s founder, William “Big Bill” Johnson was born on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains – near a crossroads called Foggertown in Clay County, Kentucky. Bill was truly a country boy himself. He walked up a dirt road a mile and a half to a one room schoolhouse to receive his eighth grade education. Being an only child, he shared a heavy load of work on the farm – mending fences, milking cows, pruning apple trees, picking blackberries, and planting. For fun on Saturday nights, they’d go to a neighbors to play a game called holygull, which involved guessing how many grains of corn someone had hidden in their closed hand.
Big Bill Johnson, the founder of Country Kitchen.
Not particularly inspired to farm or teach, the only two real opportunities in Clay County, he devised to escape to the big city. At 14, he told his parents he was going to visit friends in a neighboring county, and instead he and a buddy hitchhiked to Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, where they planned to join the army. With a document that contained forged signatures of his parents declaring he was 18, he made an attempt, but was turned down because of poor eyesight.
So, Big Bill and his buddy put up with a hill family living on Columbia Avenue in Cincinnati, and went to work bundling Chipso boxes on the night shift at the Cincinnati Container Corpo. That was during the Depression so the pay was low and jobs didn’t always last. He held a couple of jobs, like sanding furniture, but always saw that his lack of education would prevent him from moving up in the factory world So he found his future while frying hamburgers at White Castle in Cincinnati. Here was a business, Bill thought, that required common sense and a knack for getting along with other people. He had both.
So he and a friend, Bill Goodman, in 1939 saved $400 to make a down payment on restaurant equipment and opened their first Country Kitchen at an empty store on 3rd and Vine Streets. Selling hamburgers for five cents and steak burgers for 10, they pulled in about $32 a day. This was several years before Frisch’s Big Boy opened in Cincinnati in 1946. In 1942 Bill moved the restaurant to Paddock Road and Vine Street. Feeding a steady stream of hungry World War II factory workers, business boomed. Open 24 hours a day and serving more than just hamburgers, Johnson then opened stores in Dayton and Springfield, Ohio, and sold them. When the ‘eat in your car’ craze took hold, he quickly initiated curbside service with parking canopies and modern telecom equipment. He continued to serve customers with the philosophy of “Treat Folks Special,” and in 1958, began franchising his Country Kitchen restaurants all over the country.
Johnson and his wife, Ruth, lived in a six room ranch style house in Wyoming suburb, sending his two daughters and son to Greenhills High School, never really living a high rolling lifestyle that his phenomenal success would have allowed. But he was recognized for his generosity to his home state by being awarded the “Outstanding Kentuckian Award” in 1970 and given the honor of Kentucky Colonel.
He was one of the hundreds of Appalachian migrants who came to the big cities of the north for better opportunities. “The whole thing about being a hillbilly,” Johnson told the Cincinnati Enquire in 1957, “ is to admit tat you are a hillbilly and not resent the remarks made about them. You can also remind folks that all Hillbillies don’t act the same, and that Jesus wasn’t born in Ohio.”
Although Bill sold his trademark interest in 1968, Country Kitchen still exists today and is a testament to his hillbilly ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess. Pretty good for a country boy from this hills of Kentucky!