Truck Stop Marks 50 Years

NORTH BEND - It took 50 years and a lot of hard work, but Ken and Dori Rogers have parlayed a $5,000 investment in North Bend into a sprawling multimillion-dollar complex with a nationwide reputation.

Times have changed, and so have the names. First it was the Highway Cafe, then Ken's Cafe, then Ken's Truck Town and now it's Seattle-East 76 Auto/Truck Plaza.

"We worked long and hard when we bought the Highway Cafe . . . open 24 hours a day. Had eight people working with us," said 80-year-old Ken, recalling the 1940s' war years when he and his wife worked side by side, he cooking and Dori waiting on customers.

The Rogerses won't be working and serving customers this week - but two more generations of the family will, during a weeklong celebration that starts today marking the golden anniversary of the North Bend landmark.

When the couple arrived in 1941 and bought the Highway Cafe on what then was U.S. Highway 10, North Bend was a tiny logging town of 450 people. Help was hard to find; most adults had wartime jobs at The Boeing Co. and shipyards.

Dori, a tiny, sprightly woman, remembers standing on milk crates to reach the sink when she washed dishes. And she laughs when she recalls that because she and her husband owned the cafe, which was a favorite of truckers and loggers, she seldom received tips.

"I did get a 25-cent tip once . . . I still have it in a special place," she said.

Within two years the couple moved to bigger space in a building nearby and opened Ken's Cafe. Business boomed and Dori took time out to begin a family - three sons Hadley, Keith and Neil and daughter Gaynel. Eventually they all worked in the family business.

Ken's Cafe, like the Highway Cafe, caught on as a coffee and meal stop for long-distance truckers hauling goods across the Cascades. And it was a favorite of Eastern Washington farmers who brought hay, apples and other produce to market in Seattle.

"A lot of those guys would set up along the highway to sell their stuff. You don't see those trucks anymore. Today everything is big," Ken said.

Credit cards were little known, but Rogers did carry customers on the cuff, using an old cigar box to keep meal receipts. And it wasn't uncommon to lend customers money or even hand out a free meal.

Ken told the story of a trucker who came up to him about five years ago and handed him a $5 bill. Seems he had borrowed $5 from Ken more than 15 years before.

"I didn't even remember him or lending him money," Ken said.

By 1959, Ken was ready to expand again. He leased a restaurant from two men who had built a big truck stop on the east edge of North Bend that went broke in two years. Ken and Dori bought it out and Ken's Truck Town was born during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. It eventually became a landmark.

When Interstate 90 came through more than a decade later, Rogers had to tear down Truck Town and rebuild on a new 16-acre site at Exit 34. In 1976 the new Truck Town was ready for business and Ken was ready for retirement. Hadley and Neil took over.

But years of dedication and habit bring Ken and Dori by the truck stop every morning. They do odds and ends such as wrapping change and checking the mail.

"I've got to straighten up the help and keep the kids in line," Ken said with a laugh.

Hadley retired last year; Keith, who owns the Homestead Restaurant in North Bend, lives in Palm Springs, Calif.; and Neil runs the operation with help from seven other family members, including Ken's and Dori's grandchildren.

Renamed Seattle-East 76 in 1983, the complex boasts the 180-seat Ken's Cafe, a six-pump gas station and convenience store, and a truck-service center with television room, showers and restrooms, along with a shop for truck maintenance and washing. Elsewhere on the site are an office building with space rented to the Washington State Patrol, a truck insurance company, a trucking-company broker and a building contractor.

Success is contagious for the Rogers clan. The family built another truck stop, a much smaller operation, next to a rest stop on Interstate 82 in Prosser in May 1990, and business has been growing fast.

Looking up from a pile of paperwork, Lia Swanson, a granddaughter who is director of human resources for the family business, noted that it has grown from six employees in a 24-hour Highway Cafe to a commercial empire that now employs 175 people, most of them at the North Bend operation. Plans are under way to build a day-care center for employees and the public.

Seattle-East 76 has another feature that is uncommon to many truck stops - the tiny At the Foot of the Cross Chapel built in 1986.

"Traveling all the time, truckers can't have their spiritual needs met. They are away from their families, a lot of them are lonely," Ken said.

The guest book attests to the chapel's popularity - signatures of people from all over the United States and Canada, and tourists from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Japan and Peru.

And it has been the site of several weddings.

Today, Ken's Cafe will mark the first 50 years with an $11.50 all-you-can-eat crab feed.

On Wednesday, a real 1941 menu from the Highway Cafe - with 1941 prices - will be featured.

Imagine nickel coffee and 85-cent steak dinners.

The celebration will end with a complete steak dinner for $5 on Saturday.