By Sarah Mansheim
Ask anyone in Greenbrier County to tell you their favorite Jim’s Drive In menu item—usually an English dog or a Big Jim ranch burger (a loaded burger topped with ham and a sweet pickle)—and they will often share a story of what the restaurant means to them. Maybe they stopped at Jim’s for a shake after they got married at the Greenbrier County Courthouse. Perhaps they visit every year on their birthday. Everyone has a story.
In a town that is known for its history, Lewisburg’s Jim’s Drive In brings a unique legacy all its own. The drive-in restaurant has been in business for over 60 years, and under the tutelage of the Massie family, is going strong.
“We serve American comfort food,” says Lynn Massie, who runs the restaurant with her mother, Kathy, and her sister, Elizabeth. Kathy Massie cooks all of the food served at the drive in, which is located just a couple minutes west of downtown Lewisburg on Route 60. Lynn says her mother peels and cuts over 150 pounds of potatoes a day during the summer season to provide hungry diners with fresh French fries. Add over 25 types of milkshakes, homemade, hand-pulled barbecue, deep fried pickles, hot dogs, burgers, fried green tomatoes and other classic American fare, served car side, and you have a recipe for success in any small town. Lewisburg just got lucky.
Jim’s Drive In opened in the early 1950s, as car culture and the teen culture it helped inspire, spread across the country. Lynne Massie says original owner, the “Jim” of Jim’s Drive In, Jim Dunbar, incorporated the business in 1951, but Lynn says she thinks the restaurant was in existence even before that.
The drive in on Route 60 was only one of two Jim’s Drive Ins: Jim Dunbar also operated one in Frankford. Teenagers would cruise between the two Jim’s Drive Ins and the Spud’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, located in Fairlea, although some found it too expensive to drive up to the northern location. One needed to save money for a soda and a burger.
Today, Jim’s Drive In maintains a steady daytime business in the Lewisburg location—the Frankford restaurant closed long before the Massie family bought the business. Lynn, a certified chef, and her sister, Elizabeth, plan the menu, adding items and milkshake flavors inspired by their travels. Mom Kathy spends 14-hour days in the kitchen. Lynn and Elizabeth also curb, drive-in lingo meaning to wait on customers at their cars and in the outdoor seating area. The sisters’ children, Heather Massie, Rebecca Nuckoles and Ryan Nuckoles, also work at the drive in along with a couple other curb girls who Lynn says are “just like family,” too.
In a country that plays host to a Sonic in every large town, and in a town that plays host to several high-end dining experiences, what is Jim’s Drive In’s “special sauce?” Yoginis, doctors, newspaper carriers, blue bloods and blue dogs can all seem to agree that Jim’s Drive In is a viable lunch option. Is it our collective nostalgia, fed by the metal changers the curbs wear on their belts and the metal trays they attach to our rolled down car windows? The comfort of stability? Could it simply be the food? Perhaps. But, perhaps all those things combine to create a perfect combination of history and community, a collective understanding ordered with a side of fresh, hand-cut fries.
Year after year, the Massie family hosts locals, tourists, campers from Camp Greenbrier for Boys (Big Jim ranch burgers all around, says Lynn), Greenbrier Military Academy alumni (they’ve always got the best stories), osteopathic students (Big Jim ranch burgers and chili cheese fries), bikers and car enthusiasts, all rolling up to experience a deep-fried piece of nostalgia. Or maybe just a good burger. And the Massies deliver. Curbside.
The Massie family, busy as it is, also finds the time to raise funds for cancer research. The family ran the drive in for more than a decade before tragedy struck in 2011, when the family patriarch, Doug Massie, died from lung cancer in August. (Interestingly, Doug and Kathy met at Jim’s Drive In when Kathy worked as a curb girl during 1968-69.)
When Doug died, the family was already grieving the loss of his sister, Dreama Yates, who had passed away from cancer the previous March. The Massie family rallied in their grief and formed a Relay for Life team, Jim’s Drive In Cruisin’ for a Cure. The team is now in its fourth year of operation, raising funds for cancer research in an effort that culminates every June at the Greenbrier County Relay for Life event that hosts 18 teams. This year, the Jim’s team raised $16,000, part of $50,000 raised in the community.
Meanwhile, the Massie women and their children spend a head-spinning amount of time working in the drive in’s tiny kitchen and its two parking lots. Jim’s is open six days a week and closed on Sundays. It’s a lot of time for two sisters and their mother to spend together, but Lynn says they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Jim’s has always been a part of our lives,” says Lynn. “We used to go as a family every Friday night.”
Since the business is so small, if someone has to miss work, the Massies are likely to close for the day. “It’s like a big puzzle,” says Lynn, “if there’s anything missing, it’s an issue.” The restaurant also closes during inclement winter weather.
Otherwise, drive-in foodies can get their fried food fix Monday through Saturday beginning at 10:30 a.m. The restaurant closes at 5 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays; 2:30 on Wednesdays; and at 6 on Thursdays and Fridays. Not sure if they’re open? Check Facebook.
Lynn says she always posts to Facebook when the restaurant is closed. She also posts daily specials on the site. Jim’s boasts over 4,000 Facebook fans who watch for the specials. Lynn says that the first time she posted a special, as an experiment, the response was massive, so now she updates the special every day. (Example: Big Jim ranch burger, French fries or onion rings and medium drink: $7 with mention of Facebook.) She also posts when Kathy has baked something special, like a lemon pound cake or a blueberry cobbler. Jim’s also has an Instagram presence (JIMSDRIVEIN) for foodies who like to drool over photos of handmade onion rings or prefer to get their Jim’s information on that platform.
The old school among us can simply drive up the hill from downtown Lewisburg and read the special on the marquee sign, just like the old days. Simply pull up your car, roll down your window, and Lynn, Elizabeth or another curb girl will come to your car and take your order. Lynn says West Virginians tend to order their English dogs with chili (homemade by Kathy), slaw (same), mustard and onions. She says Jim’s likes to add ketchup to the combination, but die-hard West Virginia-style dog fans can get it without. Northerners tend to order theirs Coney Island-style, with chili and cheese, or with relish, and Jim’s has that fresh too. Add some rings or French fries, a handmade shake and some fresh pasta salad, and you’re good to go.
Before long, you’re part of the family. Then, when you have an event such as a wedding or a graduation, Jim’s will cater it. Kathy Massie bakes cookies and cakes for parties along with gift trays, barbecue and an array of sides.
The Massies give back wherever they can: in addition to their work for Relay for Life, when there are leftovers, Kathy gives it away to the needy. If she hears about a family without enough clothes, she sends t-shirts. Lynn says that when they are not at work, they like to support other local restaurants. Family favorites include the Wild Bean, the 19th Hole, the Mason Jar and the Greenbrier Valley Airport’s Dutch Haus.
“Everyone in the community supports each other,” says Lynn, adding that most of their customers know the curb girls’ names and vice versa. “Our customers are our family too. We appreciate the community’s support. We feed everyone, from Greenbrier guests to the once-a-monthers.”
Jim’s hasn’t gone unnoticed on the national front either. The restaurant has been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Dives and Drive Ins” and the Cooking Channel’s “Chuck’s Eat the Street.” This summer, food critic Morgan Murphy, whose books, “Southern Living Off the Eaten Path” feature out-of-the-way culinary gems, stopped by to sample the Big Jim ranch burger and Kathy’s homemade barbecue. Jim’s is set to be featured in the series’ next installation.
“It’s really cool to be recognized,” says Lynn. “We’re just a hole in the wall, a small family.”
Jim’s Drive In is located on Rt. 60, one mile west of downtown Lewisburg. The phone number is 304-645-2590.