All towns have a treasured eatery that is best known by the locals, and in Hillsboro, one of those places is Park-N-Eat. It would be hard to find a resident who does not have a memory attached to the little white burger joint, and even harder to find one who has not patronized the small town favorite.
Park-N-Eat, once known as Reaban's, celebrated its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, May 15. The drive-in restaurant opened at 201 Dearborn Street in May 1969, after original owners Claude and Dean Bowen, answered an ad placed by Reaban's Drive-In, Inc., in The Hillsboro Journal. The advertisement was looking for someone interested in owning and operating a Reaban's Drive-In restaurant.
"My father grew up in Eldorado, there was a Reaban's in town and he loved it. Every time we visited he would stop and get us burgers and fries," said Mark Bowen, explaining why his dad decided to answer the advertisement. "John Reaban had scouted out locations throughout southern Illinois, I think in Robinson, Hillsboro and Murphysboro. When my dad opened Reaban's in 1969, there were no other fast food places in town. There was only a Dairy Queen and at that time they only sold ice cream."
The Bowens decided to open the drive-in and briefly lived apart while Mr. Bowen worked to get the restaurant operational and Mrs. Bowen cared for their children, Mark and Wendell, who were finishing up school in the suburbs of Chicago. When the school term ended, the family quickly joined Mr. Bowen in Hillsboro and all went straight to work in the day-to-day operation of the restaurant.
"In a lot of ways Reaban's was our home. Reaban's was open seven days a week and we spent more time at the restaurant than we did at our own house," Bowen reminisced. "I was twelve that first summer and my job was to prepare the milk shakes. We had five different flavors and at that time burgers were 15 cents, fries were 10 cents and shakes were 35 cents, so really I was the biggest money maker," he said with a laugh. "I moved up to manning the fries and by high school I was master of the grill."
Melba Bailey, along with husband David, purchased the local eatery in October 1976, and operated it until 1995, when the restaurant was bought by current owner Mindy Mathenia.
The elemental core of family within the drive-in did not end with the Bowens' relinquishment of the business.
"I remember the day that Melba called and asked me to come in for an interview," said current owner Mathenia, who started as an employee of the drive-in. "I did not have a baby sitter and arrived at the interview carrying Kyle on my hip. Little did I know then that both of my boys would grow up here, working right alongside me.
Mathenia worked in the restaurant for five years prior to purchasing it.
"I was working the night shift for Melba and had no idea she even wanted to sell it. She came up to me one day and said that she and David had been talking about selling Park-N-Eat and wanted to know if I was interested," shared Mathenia. "I remember looking at her and saying 'me?' She said that several people were interested but that they wanted someone who would keep it going long after they were gone and she thought I was that person. She told me that they had been watching me and I took care of it as if it was my own. From then on Mr. B (David) started calling me Miss Mindy, owner-in-training. I was not supposed to buy it until the following May but the accident made it happen sooner. I took care of anything Melba needed when her kids could not be here and she taught me how to run the place."
Both Kyle and Bryan Mathenia grew up much like Bowen, working and getting to know the regulars.
"We worked hard and had a lot of fun. We got to meet a lot of people and I still remember the regulars' orders," said Kyle Mathenia with a smile. "The good and bad thing about growing up at the drive-in is that everyone knows who you are. I could never really get away with anything. Someone would call my mom and inform her of my antics before I even got back home."
The restaurant has not only housed memories for the families of those who have owned and worked within the drive-in but the memories of local families as well. When Mathenia announced the plans for an anniversary celebration on Facebook, the social media post quickly filled up with Park-N-Eat memories from commentators of all ages.
While the official anniversary was in mid-May, due to the holiday surrounding the date Mathenia decided to wait to hold the celebration on Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, to give the event the attention it deserves.
The grand opening in 1969 featured an impromptu hamburger eating contest. While no eating contest is scheduled, the 50th anniversary itinerary is full of entertainment for patrons of all ages. Park-N-Eat will be open as usual on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and will have a special opening on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The event will feature the drive-in's legendary bag-of-burgers deal both Saturday and Sunday, and the first 750 customers will receive a free drink. On Sunday, Cindy Sies will be in attendance all afternoon offering face painting for children. Local magician Professor Longhair (Randy Thompson) will also be at Park-N-Eat from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, entertaining customers with his magical feats and balloon animals. Ed Love will also make an appearance from 2 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, performing songs from the 1960s.
In addition to the free activities, the two-day event will host a variety of drawings. Each purchase will get the buyer entered into a drawing for free food items. Each bag-of-burgers purchase will get the buyer entry into a drawing for a free bag of the same kind. Customers will have a chance to win his and hers baskets as well.
"I really don't think that my parents would have believed that Reaban's would still be around to celebrate a 50th anniversary," said Bowen when asked what he thought his parents would think of the big anniversary. "As for me, I have a lot of feelings, all of them centered around being happy and proud that it is still here. It is still my favorite place to eat."
When asked the same question Mathenia said, "Honestly, I am just ecstatic to still be here. My mom loves to tell the story from when I was around four years old and said to her 'Mommy someday I am going to own a restaurant' and now I do. I never would have foreseen this when I accepted the job from Melba all those years ago. There have been a lot of burgers and a lot of laughs in this little drive-in."