Business

Jerry's Restaurants, the eatery that dominated in the '60s and '70s, now dwindling

The sign outside Jerry's in Mount Sterling reads, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." The restaurant is closing its doors on Wednesday.
The sign outside Jerry's in Mount Sterling reads, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." The restaurant is closing its doors on Wednesday. Lexington Herald-Leader

MOUNT STERLING — If you grew up in Kentucky in the 1970s, Jerry's was the place where you ate.

It's where your parents took you to celebrate your good report cards (J-Boy and Champ sandwiches), your come-to-Jesus moments (liver and onions), your first successful driving lesson (hot fudge cake) and maybe even your birthday (those magnificent strawberry pies).

The restaurants featured a big sign with a cheerful and chubby spokeswaiter. Parking spaces were capacious enough for the family LTD or Dodge Polara. The strawberry pies boasted berries as big as a baby's fist and were glazed like jewels. Hot fudge cake was the treat of choice decades before anything appeared with a molten chocolate center.

In Lexington, it was a different time: Jerrico was a leading example of a homegrown business, owning or franchising 1,500 Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppes and several smaller chains, such as Jerry's and Lott's roast beef.

Jerry's was named for Lexingtonian Jerry Lederer. The first Jerry's franchise restaurant opened in 1957.

At one time, Jerry's restaurants dominated the Lexington casual-dining landscape. On North Broadway. On Nicholasville Road. At Woodhill, near the old Lexington mall.

In 1989, Jerrico, which also oversaw Long John Silver's restaurants, was sold. Many of the Jerry's restaurants continued on their own while others were converted to Denny's, but as the years passed, the number of Jerry's dwindled.

On Aug. 26, the latest casualty will be the Jerry's in Mount Sterling, right off Interstate 64.

Meanwhile, the Jerry's in Paris is going strong. And Jerry's restaurants are open in Radcliff and Bowling Green.

Both the Paris and the Mount Sterling restaurants were packed last week. In Mount Sterling, Debbie Arnold was there with her grandchildren, Janie and Ethan Pennington, having an early lunch. Janie had the chicken strips, Ethan the BLT.

"Jerry's has always been their pick," Arnold said. "It's casual and everyone's friendly, and the staff know you by name."

Arnold praised Jerry's for serving "about as Southern a country breakfast as you can get" — country ham, eggs and grits. She and her husband used to come to the Jerry's when it was in downtown Mount Sterling and had curb service. They would back their car into a spot facing the street and people-watch.

Carter Cornett, the Mount Sterling Jerry's owner, came in as a franchisee before the organization splintered. Despite a core group of customers — some of whom come in more than once a day — Cornett blames business conditions for the restaurant's closing.

He'll miss the holiday turkey and dressing, and the pumpkin pie, as well as the fried chicken. On Mother's Day weekend, the restaurant made 60 of its gargantuan strawberry pies in two days.

Cornett's daughter Sarah Cornett started working at the restaurant 20 years ago, when she was 15.

After his restaurant closes, Cornett said he plans to "rest for a while. All this closing stuff is new to me and really stressful."

In Paris, an out-of-town couple recently came in and requested a tub of Jerry's spaghetti sauce to take home with them. The Jerry's staff obliged. Given that modern consumers have available to them everything from Newman's Own to Mario Batali, that says something about brand loyalty.

Not to mention the comforting power of habit: "I have a ritual every morning," Jerry Price said. "We eat at the round table."

Shea Pulliam's parents, A.B. and Maxine Pulliam, opened the Jerry's in Paris in 1961, when she was 9. Her father was one of the last franchisees, she said. Growing up, she took orders and waited tables: "This is our family legacy," she said.

Her favorite Jerry's foods are cheese fries, sweet tea and fish sandwiches.

Barry Sargent, manager of the Jerry's in Paris, said it's the only job he's ever had. He started working there 34 years ago, at age 16.

"I just love the food industry," he said. His favorite Jerry's item: Mexican salad.

Back in Mount Sterling, Pam Esteppe lingered over her French toast — try getting that at Waffle House, she said — while husband Gary finished a cup of coffee.

Nearby, Jean McCoy keeps up the Jerry's tradition she started with her late husband, to whom she was married for 48 years. She's eating with Douglas Centers of Mount Sterling, her son-in-law.

"My husband, before he died, wanted to come here all the time," she said. "I just keep it up."

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