A lot can change in 60 years: the city of Lufkin has grown up considerably, expanding its borders and adding to its population. Businesses, as well as people, have come and gone. Not much remains the same.
But on the corner of Timberland Drive and Paul Avenue is a restaurant that has truly stood the test of time. Voted consistently as serving one of the best hamburgers in town, Ray’s Drive In opened in 1959 under the ownership of J.C. and Opal Ray. Strictly a family business, the Rays all pitched in to sling burgers and make malts.
“My husband at the time was 12 years old. He stacked Coke bottles. Aunt Faye cooked, Aunt Dell carhopped and J.C. did the best he could to wrangle the whole crew,” said Lawanna Ray Johnson, the Ray’s daughter-in-law and current owner.
Lawanna met her then-husband Jerry Ray in 1971. She was walking down the aisle six months after their first date. A college student at the time, she didn’t have much interest in the restaurant industry.
“I was in college and said I wasn’t going to do that the rest of my life. (My dad) would say, ‘I don’t care. You learn the business. You never know when you’ll have to fall back on that. You have to learn his business.’ So I did. Basically this is all I know.”
Lawanna moved up through the ranks.
“I started learning the business quick. I started in the front. I learned how to catch drinks, make malts and take orders. That’s where I started, and I really liked carhopping.”
In the mid 1990s, J.C., Opal and their other son Billy retired and sold the business to Jerry and Lawanna. The next several years were filled with additions and adjustments. A second restaurant — Ray’s West — was purchased across town in 1996. The original building on Timberland Drive experienced its share of remodels and rebuilds — five in all — each adding to the overall customer experience. New items were added to the menu.
Jerry Ray died in 2012 after a lengthy battle with his failing health, and two years later, an attic fire caused substantial damage at Ray’s West. Armed with the decision not to rebuild, Lawanna threw all her efforts behind the Ray’s first drive-in.
“I had lost my husband in 2012, and I had been working those two restaurants by myself for almost ten years then, and I was tired,” Lawanna said. “I had been hunting an answer, and I can truthfully say you must be careful what you ask the good Lord to do.”
Six decades later, Lawanna said there is one thing she will never compromise — her predecessors’ same high standards of selling top-quality food in an enjoyable atmosphere.
“The restaurant has changed incredibly, but not the part where we insist on fresh. Fresh meat every morning is brought in. They stand back there around a big table and they hand roll the patties. It’s just what we do. Lettuce, chopped. Tomatoes, sliced. Onions, chopped. Every morning.”
In celebration of that legacy, Ray’s Drive In is partnering with the East Texas Corvette Club to host a car show in the diner’s parking lot on Saturday. They also will have activities for both kids and adults, and of course, some good food.
Lawanna said J.C. Ray’s signature cup back in the ‘60s was a white, 8-ounce paper cup that had been dipped in wax and sported red and blue polka dots. People would come from all over claiming they had found the cup and needed to check out Ray’s Drive In. This week, Lawanna is replicating that classic trademark. Anyone who orders a medium drink leading up to the 60th anniversary celebration will get a commemorative red and blue polka dotted, plastic cup. Anyone who brings the cup back from now on gets a half-price drink.
Customers also will get a raffle ticket with each purchase this week for a chance to win a large goody basket packed with gift certificates and Ray’s swag.
“If you place an order, you get a ticket. If you come twice that day, you get two tickets.”
Although they’ve fluctuated with the times, Lawanna said she knows what keeps her patrons coming back after all these years.
“The quality of the food has not changed; we have worked very hard to do that. It has to be the consistency of the product, the efficiency of the workers and possibly the novelty of it being a 60-year-old restaurant,” she said. “It’s been an interesting ride.”