April 17, 2014
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A Slice of Success

When four brothers were children in the 1950s, they took over a restaurant left behind after their father’s untimely death. They borrowed $40,000 and made the restaurant one of the most popular hangouts in Evansville. Then, they made history with a slice of cheese pizza.

In 1956, weekends at Austin’s Drive-In oozed more retro cool than Johnny Rockets ever could imagine today. When the 80 parking spaces filled up, customers parked down Highway 41 for blocks, much to the chagrin of the Evansville Police Department. Milkshakes, hamburgers, and French fries were ordered on a new electronic system. Curb girls brought patrons their meals in less than three minutes.

Lonesome Larry, a popular radio deejay, broadcasted live from a booth built specifically to play the parent-infuriating rock-n-roll. The whole maddening scene was an example of what a successful restaurant looks like when teenagers run a business. If it wasn’t for the untimely death of their father and original owner, James Austin Hunt, what those teenagers accomplished at Austin’s may never have led to the innovative pizza found in more than 6,500 convenience stores, gas stations, and taverns in America.

After Austin passed away from a heart attack in 1955, he left his wife Matilda and seven children — Don, Lonnie, Jim, Charlie, Mary, Elizabeth Ann, and Theresa — behind. The oldest, Don, was a former Memorial High School football standout on a scholarship at Vanderbilt University two hours south in Nashville, Tenn. Lonnie was barely old enough to drive when the Memorial senior took over the restaurant. He went to school, played football, and ran Austin’s. When Don finished his final semester at Vanderbilt, he returned home and swore Lonnie’s hair was turning white.

Lonnie had help, though. Matilda asked her youngest son Charlie at age 11, “Don’t you think it’s time you went to work?” All Hunt children started in the family business at an early age. At 9, Don peeled potatoes (50 pounds a day), Lonnie sprayed the Dumpster behind the restaurant to kill flies, and Jim and Charlie washed dishes. They grew older, took on new responsibilities, and became intimately familiar with the restaurant business. “I started out at 50 cents an hour,” says Charlie with a laugh. “I worked my way up to 85 cents an hour. Then Lonnie comes to me and says, ‘Our labor cost percentage is too high. I’m going to have to cut you back from 85 cents.’”

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