When the White Turkey Drive-in opened for business one week ago, it marked a milestone: Sixty years of people gobbling sandwiches at the red-and-white eatery.
It was 1952 when Ed and Marge Tuttle opened their restaurant in the family’s raspberry patch along Route 20. Son Gary and his wife, Peggy, now oversee the operation, with much help from daughter Kelly Vito and her husband, Bradd.
Six decades have passed since the Tuttle clan first pressed a mound of turkey meat between two buns, but little in the operation has changed. The restaurant stands untouched, and many of the fixtures — including the U-shaped counter — are originals. Richardson root beer still flows from a gigantic barrel into frosted mugs.
No one anticipated such a long-lived enterprise.
“Every year rolls into another year,” Peggy said. “We still enjoy opening. We like the people the best.”
Ed Tuttle and family were vacationing in West Virginia one year when he spied a roadside restaurant that became the White Turkey’s inspiration. Tuttle believed a drive-in restaurant could dovetail nicely with the turkey farm he operated, Gary said.
“He thought something like this,” Gary Tuttle said, indicating the restaurant, “would work with turkey-raising.”
Ed scoured the area for a suitable spot for his new enterprise when Grandma Tuttle suggested her berry patch along Route 20, Gary said. Ed liked the location and the White Turkey Drive-In was born in 1952.
For one year, the family mixed restaurant duties and turkey farming, Gary said. The restaurant used the Tom Turkeys that buyers avoided at the holidays because of their large size, he said.
“It was a great way to merchandise the turkeys left over from the growing season,” Gary said.
Running a restaurant while raising turkeys proved too difficult, however, and one year after the 1952 grand opening the family arranged to buy the same turkey meat from a supplier. One thing didn’t — and hasn’t — changed: the secret recipe Marge created to make the turkey sandwiches.
“Mom coined the recipe,” Gary said.
Gary credits Peggy for the restaurant’s growth and success over the years.
“Peggy took to it really good,” he said. “The end result is all because of her effort.”
Ed also raised cattle that eventually made their way onto the menu.
“Dad had a really good eye for business,” Gary said. “He worked extremely hard.”
The business hit a bump in the early 1960s, when the arrival of Interstate 90 siphoned traffic off Route 20. “Business dropped 75 percent,” Gary said.
The restaurant rebounded, however, and now has followers across the country and around the world.
In 1981, Gary and Peggy took over the business that’s open between Mother’s Day and Labor Day. More recently, Kelly and Bradd — both teachers in the Ashtabula district — have taken on significant roles in the restaurant: Kelly handles personnel and scheduling, while Bradd is in charge of the kitchen.
“They are very, very valuable to us,” Gary said.
Countless numbers of young people have spent summers working at the White Turkey. This season, the restaurant will employ more than two dozen people, Peggy said.
“We have three generations of families who have worked for us,” Peggy said.
Today, the restaurant is a destination for people who delight in nostalgia. On nice weekends, parking spaces are at a premium.
“We’ve gone from three picnic tables to 22 tables,” Peggy said.
Many customers fear the Tuttle family will some day shut the door for good or — even worse — tinker with the eatery’s old-school atmosphere, Peggy said. Don’t fret, say the owners.
“The only changes we ever make are to increase production, but they never show,” Gary said.