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Nov. 10 will mark the end of an era in LaRue County.
Ruthie’s Lincoln Freeze, home of the peanut butter milkshake, plate lunch special and Lincoln burger, is closing.
The building has stood at 700 S. Lincoln Blvd. in Hodgenville for 60 years.
According to courthouse records, Norma Hazle Davis (Scruggs) and Ben Davis were the first owners of the small three-room block building. Sometime in the early 1950s, they sold or rented the building to Logan and Blanche Duckworth.
The Duckworths started the business as the Lincoln Freeze. Mr. Duckworth added to the front and constructed a walk-up window. It had one booth inside.
Ruth and Elmer Chelf purchased it in the early 1960s. Their son, Ronnie Chelf and his wife Donna, bought it in 1984.
The name was changed to “Ruthie’s Lincoln Freeze” in honor of Ronnie’s mom.
When Ronnie’s parents owned the restaurant, a milkshake cost 25 cents. Cones were a nickel.
“I remember raising the price (of milkshakes) to 50 cents,” said Ronnie. “Now a milkshake is nearly $3 but the profit is the same.”
Ronnie said selling the business is “one of the hardest decisions” he has made. It has been in his family for 52 years.
He and Donna have put a lot of work – and love – into the restaurant.
When they purchased the Lincoln Freeze, they renovated it, putting in new water and sewer lines, adding restrooms and adding a 56-person seating area.
For several years, they lived in a mobile home next door to the restaurant. In the early 1990s, they sold their home and built a miniature golf course behind Ruthie’s. It was a good draw for families for several years. When it was dismantled, he stored the clubs and obstacles in his barn.
In 2001, they remodeled the restaurant, decorating the dining area with framed prints of Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. A drive-thru, snack bar and new menu items were added.
During that time, Ronnie and Donna stayed busy in the community, raising their three sons and working at their second business, Ronnie’s Custom Cabinets.
Ronnie served on the school board and as a little league coach for several years. He helped organize the current soccer program.
They allowed customers to hold yard sales on the property and hosted numerous celebrations for little league teams.
They enjoyed the balance of work and fun.
“We always talked about living in the house next door and running (the restaurant) when we were old,” he said.
Many things at Ruthie’s have remained the same over the years. The hamburger and tenderloin “are still bought from Uncle Charlie’s,” the milkshakes are made with real fruit and local produce is used when available.
He used to purchase all his produce from Hazle’s Farm Supply – which is also closing this month.
As many as 2,000 people have worked at Ruthie’s since its’ opening, Ronnie said. Many are family members, including Rosanna Williams, who has managed the restaurant since 2005 and worked there several years before that.
“Some stayed a couple of weeks, some years,” said Ronnie. “Donna remembers every one of them.”
It has been difficult to keep the restaurant afloat in recent years with increased regulations, health inspections and insurance premium increase. He has attempted to absorb the price increase of food – but it’s difficult to keep the price down and maintain the quality.
Equipment replacement costs have skyrocketed.
“Now a triple-head milkshake machine costs $20,000,” he said. “How many milkshakes do you have to sell to pay for that?”
Replacing a broken sign will cost $3,000; repairing the drive-thru, another $3,000.
The repercussions of Obamacare on a small business also is a factor, he said.
And Donna, who has been working at Ruthie’s since a teenager, may be having knee replacement surgery in upcoming months.
All those factors are “making it hard (for his business),” said Ronnie. “I was going to try to tough it out until I was approached last April and asked about selling.”
He was contacted by a developer for Dollar General Store. He plans to sell both the restaurant and a house and lot next door to it.
Ruthie’s will be razed.
“They only want the land,” he said. “They said they’re going to put a Ruthie’s memorial in the parking lot.”
Ronnie has received numerous phone calls from past and present customers and wellwishers, asking him not to sell or offering to purchase memorabilia from the restaurant.
Some local young people have offered to raise money to “save Ruthie’s.”
He appreciates their concern but needs to do what is best for his family, he said.
“I grew up in it – I didn’t want to let it go.”
He isn’t sure what the future holds. He and Donna will continue to work in the cabinet shop and he’s considering another run at school board.
Ruthie’s will hold a farewell event for customers on Nov. 9.