Keep everything the same. That was the thought going through Seth Woodward’s head as he reopened Wyndall’s Wonder Whip on February 1, 2016, as the new owner.
Woodward said he’s always had a fascination with vintage and older things, and would acquire things that had a bit of age to them, like his first car: a 1972 Chevy pickup truck. He drove his pickup truck past Wonder Whip so much that it would blend into the scenery of the east part of the county.
But one day he drove by and realized the uniqueness of the establishment. “That place looks kind of neat, I don’t see many buildings like that every day,” he said on a casual drive by. After driving by it for years on end, the news came that the restaurant was closing, and he was surprised the Owensboro landmark would be shutting its doors. Shortly after, talks about reopening under his ownership began.
When Wonder Whip reopened, he said there was no intention to change anything, and he still doesn’t plan to change the nearly-70-year-old establishment. There were challenges that came with opening, Woodward said, but the goal of preserving the restaurant’s legacy kept the team pushing through. And Woodward felt that familiarity would continue to push the business into its first week under the new owner. “The response when it closed was so large. Everybody was so disappointed when it closed. I was hoping that a lot of that energy would be channeled into some support when we reopened,” he said.
Luckily, in 2016 people liked burgers and milkshakes just as much as they did in 1955, because the community turned out — so much so they were setting new sales records by the end of the first week. A couple things have been added to the establishment, more picnic tables, plus Ale 8 and Orange Crush added to the drink menu, but it was almost as if it had never closed. Same burger recipe. Same seating area. Same menu.
That familiarity has remained the center part of the establishment even when things changed consistently across the city. As downtown developed; as Highway 54 grew; as Frederica changed its pace; and as the city quarantined during the pandemic, Woodward has tried to keep Wonder Whip the same since the day it opened in 1955.
Ironically, while the world was adjusting to a pandemic style, they adjusted to exactly what Wonder Whip has provided since they opened: a drive-thru experience. While other food providers were closing due to restrictions on operating, Woodward said they were seeing even more record highs in their sales, which pushed Woodward’s staff to continue to provide that quality experience. “People still have to eat and so they came to us, and so in a very short period of time, we had to figure out how to serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and we did it,” Woodward said.
As the pandemic continued, Woodward was proud to report they stayed open 7 days a week and never had a case of COVID-19 in their operations. By the time 2021 was coming to a close, Woodward was finishing five years in his ownership without a closure in sight. That changed in December 2021 when a car caused some structural damages. This was the first sense of the unfamiliar they had since reopening. “It’s instant. It’s tragic. It’s unbelievable. In a split second, your entire world pretty much comes to a screeching halt, and no one comes down from the clouds and fixes everything for you,” Woodward said. He said that rushed them into a process of figuring out how they were going to navigate several factors at once. Employee safety, employee pay, opening back up. But they navigated all of them effectively: there were no injuries that day, all employees remained paid, and they eventually reopened the classic drive thru again on February 1. Those rehab repairs were some of the only repairs made to the establishment since first opening up, making it like a time capsule to Woodward. “The thing that I like the most is the fact that this restaurant is basically a time capsule. In a world where everything changes all the time, this hasn’t changed basically for 67 years, and that brings some sense of comfort to people,” he said.
Woodward said the memories people have of the restaurant are like an old friend: consistent and always welcoming. And he considers himself not the owner of the space, but the caretaker of the grounds, and hence the community’s old friend, Wyndall’s Wonder Whip. “You’ve got generations of people that have worked here and ate here and thanks to their contributions, we’re still able to do what we do. At the end of the day, I’m the caretaker. I’m in charge, but without a full team of people supporting us, we wouldn’t get very far,” Woodward said.