The giant chicken in the back of an El Camino may beckon travelers along Route 66 to stop at Cookin’ From Scratch. But it’s the locals in Doolittle, Mo. (population: 600), who have kept Tony Sherrer busy at his Ozark Oil Phillips 66 gas station, Stuckey’s c-store, Cookin’ From Scratch diner and Missouri Wine Outlet—as well as two car washes and a billboard business—for the past 20 years.
“We are in a very small community, and for a long time, we were one of the only businesses here,” says Sherrer, who eschews titles and accepts “owner” only because, well, he owns the place. “Our restaurant business is probably 70% local people. But we sure rely in the summertime on travelers.”
To get locals in, Sherrer says he makes sure he offers “a fair deal” and runs a lot of specials. Travelers stop for the once-iconic but largely forgotten Stuckey’s roadside brand, locally made Amish candy, pickled and jarred goods (soon to include the Cookin’ From Scratch brand) and now Missouri wine.
“One thing about being an independent is you’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself. We don’t have the footprint that the big chains have, where it’s one size fits all,” Sherrer says. “We’re a unique place. We found our niche by messing with the stuff that nobody else wants to mess with.”
"We’re a unique place. We found our niche by messing with the stuff that nobody else wants to mess with."
Sherrer grew up in the food distribution business. The previous owner of his station was one of his customers, who opened it in 1985 as a two-pump gas station. Under Sherrer’s ownership, it has evolved into a $5 million-a-year store. He is on-site every day, while his wife, Melissa, works six days a week. The store has a staff of about 35. This is Sherrer’s only store. “One is enough,” he says. “A long time ago, a man told me, ‘One or 10.’ You need one good one, or you need 10.”
The diner’s famous Route 66 King of the Road Burger Challenge originated during a brainstorming session on how to bring in more customers. A contestant must eat a 66-ounce burger with fries in 66 minutes. The prize? “You get it for free, get a T-shirt and get a picture on our wall,” says Sherrer. “We’ve had about eight finish it.”
While not many people take the challenge, families order the burger and cut it like a pizza. It’s a favorite for birthday parties, Cub Scout parties and church groups.
And that 9-foot chicken on the car?
“I have been offered way more money than that thing is worth many a time to sell it, but it’s an icon and a trademark,” Sherrer says. “It has been to many parades. Most people who stop here, that’s what they remember. As an independent, I’m not going to impress people with my brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, so how do they remember me? Not too many people forget about a chicken in a car. If I had $1 for every picture that was taken with that chicken, I’d be out of the convenience-store business.”