There are 135 juicy reasons to detour off I-90 into Drummond, and head straight to Parkers’ Restaurant. I had heard of this place with an outrageous number of hamburgers on the menu and was anxious to check it out for myself. I was not disappointed.
Parkers’ is the creation of Jennifer and Brent Parker. Originally from California, I asked Jen how they ended up in Drummond and she says with a deep belly laugh, “to get away from our kids.” Anxious to leave the stressful California life, they would first take a job near Drummond doing contract work for the Montana Department of Transportation before opening the diner in 2003.
Trained at the California Culinary Academy, Brent uses his talents and a wild imagination to dream up some crazy combos for his assortment of burgers. Keeping it in the family, son Brent, with a background in culinary training, works alongside his Dad in the kitchen. Son Sean was also an integral part of Parkers’, but passed away from cancer in 2014. Brent speaks fondly of how his spirit is still very much a part of their operation. Jen keeps things flowing in the dining room.
Speaking of the dining room, I feel like I’ve stepped into a Normal Rockwell painting. It’s filled to the brim with “stuff” that Jen and Brent have collected over many years, most of it Coca-Cola related. Jennifer admits she is a borderline hoarder and uses the word “packrat” to describe Brent. In front of the cluttered counter sits a Coke cooler stacked with burger books. A board tacked to the wall behind the counter spells out the Parker challenge. Consume a two-pound loaded cheeseburger, a pound of French fries and a large milkshake in 20 minutes and the meal is on Jen and Brent. Photos of those who have met this challenge hang below the sign.
As it turns out, my visit is on Taco Thursday. By noon, the place is swamped. I’m not seeing a lot of burgers coming out, as everyone is keen on ordering the tacos or taco salad. A group of well-mannered high school kids have texted in their orders and have come down to pick them up. A highway patrolman has stopped for some grub, along with a group of six ranchers discussing North Korea then moving on to irrigation issues. A group of Asian tourists duck in from the rain and settle in for lunch.
I’m determined to have a burger despite the tacos looking yummy. I grab one of the three-ring binder burger books and start my search, with the burger descriptions being both entertaining and befuddling with so many choices. I now understand why customers get overwhelmed with so many options, and often settle on the bacon cheeseburger, the top seller at Parkers’. For $7.50 I can order a Hillbilly Deluxe, consisting of a burger patty sandwiched between toasted white bread, two pieces of fried bologna, two slices of American cheese, a fried egg, mustard and mayonnaise. The Black and Blue Burger is tempting, with a Cajun blackened burger on a bed of shredded lettuce and tomato, slap yo mama mayo and blue cheese crumble. I finally settle on the Big Kahuna — a combo of ham, pineapple, shredded lettuce, mayo, tomato and Swiss cheese.
During a short break between orders, Brent says “do you want to know what I’m really passionate about?” He explains how he has teamed up with the Drummond High School to offer a ProStart class in culinary techniques accredited through the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. This school year, nine students from the high school are enrolled. They will be given the chance to compete in the Montana ProStart competition, where Drummond walked away with 1st place during the last school year.
In the back of the kitchen, Brandyn Todd takes a pan of freshly made buns from the oven, a recipe she and “Chef” concocted. Brandyn was one of the students in Brent’s class and now is in charge of baking between 500-750 hamburger buns weekly.
Parkers’ is clearly a team effort to consistently put out the best of comfort food. Beyond the burgers, there are hand-cut fries, chicken wraps, porkies, homemade soups, salads, pies, the list goes on. Brent lets me know a new burger book is due out soon that will increase the number of burger choices to around 150.
Everything about Parkers’ feels right. Both Jen and Brent are down-to-earth, good-hearted folks. They have created a place in Drummond that’s much more than just great food at a reasonable price. It has become a gathering place for the locals, a hub that binds a small town together.
I know there are now 136 reasons to stop in Drummond — the last one being to spend some time with the folks and their cooking that exemplifies some of the best of what Montana has to offer.