When the first BJ’s Kountry Kitchen opened its doors in 1981, the owner didn’t have enough plates to hold the meals they were serving.
“I had 8 plates,” says founder and owner Judy Kerr. “I totally forgot.”
Despite that wobbly beginning, the restaurant went on to be a big success (and not just because customers started bringing their own plates). The first BJ’s Kountry Kitchen – which is now at Cedar and Ashlan avenues – will celebrate its 35th anniversary Saturday, May 27.
Kerr, now 74, helped open 14 restaurants under that name in the Fresno area. Four remain, with three owned by someone else. The one Kerr opened started at Cedar and Clinton avenues, but moved into the Save Mart shopping center on Ashlan Avenue in 1982.
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I’ll always say it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Judy Kerr, BJ’s Kountry Kitchen founder
It’s been open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily ever since, serving the biscuits and gravy it’s known for and other breakfast and lunch dishes.
Kerr isn’t in the restaurant on a daily basis, but she’ll be there late Saturday morning. One customer will receive a free breakfast for a year if he or she guesses how much the restaurant did in sales on its first day.
Earlier, Kerr reminisced about how BJ’s Kountry Kitchen got its start. Her name, Judy, is the J in BJ. The B is her ex-husband’s name, but she doesn’t want to talk about him.
Now, the B stands for Boston, where she’s from, she says.
Why the Ks in Kountry Kitchen?
“I wanted country with a K,” she says. “I don’t know, I wanted all Ks. It just sounded cute.”
Kerr says the restaurant really took off after a Fresno Bee restaurant critic ate there. With zero prodding from this reporter, Kerr shared she fed a group of people without realizing the critic was among them.
“I thought, ‘Wow, they ate good and left a nice tip,’” she says. “I thought nothing of it.”
That was the biggest boost. It was a kick in the butt.
Judy Kerr, BJ’s Kountry Kitchen founder
A few days later, she showed up first thing in the morning to a packed restaurant with no clue why there were so many people there.
Kerr remembers an elderly customer saying to her, “‘Isn’t that the sweetest?’ I said, ‘What?’ She said the ‘write up.’”
She was referring to a positive review by the late Madeline Davidson, the Bee’s restaurant critic and food editor from the late 1970s into the 1990s.
The review had Kerr feeling happy, terrified and overwhelmed at the same time.
“From that day on, we were packed,” she says. “We were so busy we couldn’t keep up. We finally had to put a sign up that said because of the write up, we weren’t prepared. I had to go buy a bigger grill.”
The restaurant says it’s been voted “Friendliest Restaurant in Fresno” 35 times by the Fresno Restaurant Association.
Gina Elser started to waitress there in January and loves its homey feel.
“To me it feels like you’re sitting at your aunt’s house or your grandma’s house,” she says.
Kerr has seen marriage proposals at the restaurant. Customers brought in as babies have come back as mothers and grandmothers.
“I’m not lying to you, the people there feel like our family,” she says. “I’ve loved every bit of it.”
Buffalo Wings & Rings
Buffalo Wings & Rings is poking around Fresno and Clovis looking for franchisees to open a restaurant.
And just so we don’t befuddle our buffaloes, I should point out that this is a different company than national chain Buffalo Wild Wings, which has two locations in Fresno. It’s also different from locally owned Buffalo Ranch Wings & Things, a wing joint in a former Taco Bell near Shields and Cedar avenues.
We make blue cheese for people who don’t like blue cheese.
Philip Schram, Buffalo Wings & Rings
Buffalo Wings & Rings is a Cincinnati-based company that was founded 30 years ago, says chief development officer and partner Philip Schram. He talks about wings and onion rings in a thick French accent because he’s a Frenchman who moved to the United States seeking a friendly business climate and buying into the business 11 years ago.
The restaurant, which has a location in Modesto, serves five types of wings with 13 flavored sauces (peach habanero, anyone?) and blue cheese or ranch dressing. It’s a little nicer than your typical wing joint, Schram says, with salads and burgers on the menu.
It might be a while before we see one open here. It takes about two years to find a franchisee and build a restaurant, he says. But, the company wants to open at least one location in Clovis and between five and seven in the area.