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Business owners have something to crow about




When they first opened their doors 20 years ago this month, owners Doug and Dawn Marlett weren't sure how long JD's Country Style Chicken would be in business.

"The early days, we were thinking, 'Are we going to (last) six months from now,' " Dawn Marlett said.

They sold their house to qualify for a Small Business Administration loan, and survived the early years.

"Took us quite a while to get things going where we wanted it to go," Doug Marlett said. "About three, four years we started to do the numbers we needed to do."

Doug Marlett's father, John, owned the A&W restaurant across the street from JD's. He built the building where JD's is located in 1973, and moved the A&W there. Doug's father eventually sold the business, and the A&W moved to 27th and Vine.

The old building at 740 E. Eighth sat empty for years, before Doug Marlett leased it from his father before eventually buying it.

When they first opened, customers ordered at the front counter, and the food was served to them. Changing the ordering process was one of the keys to success for the business.

"They wanted to come in, sit down, be waited on," Doug Marlett said. "That was a big thing."

The menu was another important change. At first, it was mainly chicken and chicken-fried steaks.

"We expanded our menu, gave a little more variety," Doug Marlett said.

A big seller now is the hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. Doug Marlett was eating in a restaurant in Nebraska, where the hot roast beef sandwich was on the menu. He thought it could be a good addition to his restaurant, so he found out from the owner how they were made.

"We started that here as a once-a-week special, and it just really took off," Doug Marlett said. "People liked it. Now, we just sell a ton of those."

The hot roast beef sandwich is one of the favorites of Angie Diehl, Hays, who eats there on her lunch hour.

"At least once a week," she said. "My little boy likes to come, so we come once a week, too. So, about twice a week.

"My two favorites are the chicken nuggets with mashed potatoes and gravy, and my other one is the hot roast beef sandwich. Those are good."

Diehl said her son likes the chicken fried steak dinner, and another popular menu item is chicken and noodles.

"I really enjoy the chicken and noodles," Doug Marlett said. "They're made from scratch."

The restaurant does a lot of business where people order ahead of time and pick it up at the drive-thru window.

"We get a lot of people that will order at 5 o'clock, and come get it, come home after work," Dawn Marlett said.

The Marletts have approximately 30 employees, mostly high school and college students.

"We have nice kids out here on a part-time basis," Doug Marlett said. "And I got some people out here during the daytime, full-timers that are really good workers, and really help me out a lot."

The Marletts' children both work at the restaurant, too. Derek, 23, works there full-time, and Tara, 20, works there as well as going to school at Fort Hays State University.

The restaurant's name comes from the first initials of Doug's father and his own.

"Just kind out of respect for my dad," Doug Marlett said. "He was in the restaurant business for 27 years."

Doug met Dawn -- who was from Nebraska -- at FHSU, and they have been married for 26 years. Dawn has a full-time job in the accounting department at Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas, and works at the restaurant evenings and weekends, as well as keeping the books.

To show their customer appreciation for 20 years in business, the Marletts have been selling ice cream cones for 20 cents through April. They also are looking to the future.

"I'm going to turn 59 here in a month," Doug Marlett said. "I'd like to go 25 years, and then hopefully we can sell the property to somebody and retire."

Until then, Doug Marlett will be scurrying about at the restaurant, helping out where needed. He had to take two weeks off recently after eye surgery, and came back with a patch over his eye. But that didn't slow him down.

"We're proud of what we have, and we realize we're just a small, little business," he said. "It's been good for us. We're very proud of it."