Under new ownership since June 2006, Andy and Kimmie Campo are the sixth owners of the small, family-friendly drive-in. With it, they inherited a strong patronage and a 50-year-old piece of Elgin’s history.
The drive-in was originally the vision of Tom and Flossie Sager of Elgin. They opened the business in 1957 under the assumed business name of Tom’s-n-Out. Elgin native Cecil Churchill remembered when it first opened.
“When I was 16 years old, I remember it belonged to the Sagers,” said Cecil. “They bought the property when it had a house on it. They moved the house back to make room for the business.”
Also part of the Sagers’ vision for this property was a youth center where kids could hang out and have some fun.
“Behind the drive-in was another building, an entertainment center for kids. It had a juke box and games in there for the kids to play. It was a good business idea because the kids would also order food,” said Cecil.
Over the next 12 years, the drive-in changed hands three times. The Sagers sold the business to Jack Eckstein, and he sold it to Dale Hargett, the football coach at Elgin High School.
In 1970, Jim Stroup bought the business and closed down the kids center, making it into a storage building. Stroup operated the drive-in for about nine years as Jim’s-n-Out. The menu included hot dogs, beef burgers, cheese burgers, junior burgers, loggers, curly fries, pronto pups (corn dogs), fish sticks and fries and drinks. Cones came in three sizes for 10, 15 and 25 cents each.
When Stroup wanted to sell the business, Cecil and Becky Churchill gave it some serious thought.
“I was a logger then, and when it came up for sale, I was looking for another job. I didn’t know anything about a business like this, and although Becky was a homemaker and good cook, she had no experience in fast food service either,” said Cecil.
Nonetheless, on Sept. 1, 1979, Cecil and Becky Churchill took ownership. For the Churchills and their three children, Lisa, Debbie and Richard, it was a life-changing decision. They changed the business name to C-Zers Drive-In, because Cecil’s CB handle from his logging days had been C-Zer. The name turned out to be the only familiar thing about the business.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Becky. “I told Cecil that we’re not going to let this business control our lives. But after the first 12 hours I thought, what have we gotten ourselves into?”
After nearly 27 years, they found out. The Churchills worked side by side in close quarters seven days a week, 12 hours a day. They learned patience, perseverance and when it was wise to just bite their tongues.
C-Zers wasn’t just their business but home too, the place where they raised their three children.
“When the kids got out of school,” Becky said, “they came to C-Zers and did their homework and helped out when we needed them.”
For having no prior experience in this type of business, the Churchills did remarkably well. In their first year, they doubled their customers, and in their second year, they tripled the number of customers they served. They added a few more things to the menu, and Cecil did the frying and cooking.
“We did a lot of volume sales because we didn’t like to raise our prices,” said Becky.
Over the years, C-Zers had many loyal customers. Some were logging truckers who called ahead from the log yard on their CBs to place their orders. One regular customer always came through and ordered the same thing each time — a cone for himself and one for his dog too.
Another customer stopped at the order window with a live cow in the rear of his Suburban. It was all in a day’s work at C-Zers.
Becky Churchill stands beside the menu board for C-Zers. "We did a lot of volume sales so that we could keep our prices down," she said. - Photo/Trish Yerges
Cecil recalled regular customers who drove in on weekends.
“A judge and his wife stopped in every weekend and gave us Walla Walla onions. Another couple came through every weekend from the Tri-Cities on their way to their ranch in Enterprise. We didn’t know the names of many of these people that stopped in every weekend,” said Cecil.
Some of C-Zers’ busiest weekends included Chief Joseph Days, the Pendleton Round-Up and the Elgin Stampede rodeo and parade. On one Stampede weekend, Billy Hindman drove his stagecoach and a six-up around the drive-in just for fun. Before the parades, Cecil and Becky, along with their employees, geared up for the big rush.
“We started selling sodas and ice cream before 10 a.m., and then after the parade, we started cooking and didn’t stop until 3 p.m. On those big weekends, it was common to go through 80 gallons of ice cream,” Cecil said.
The largest crowd C-Zers has ever served in one day were more than 200 hungry motorcyclists.
“We had over 200 bikers stop here for three or four years in a row. They had a motorcycle rally at the Stampede grounds and in La Grande, and we were a stop on their poker run,” Cecil said.
Crowds like this required good help. C-Zers employed a lot of Elgin’s teenagers, high school freshman and sophomores usually. Three helped out on weekends and two during the week. Some stayed with C-Zers for three to five years; others worked weekends for 10 years. The Churchills saw a lot of teens grow up over their 27 years in business.
“We hired lots of high school kids before we sold the business,” said Cecil. “It was a real rush here some days, and it got that we bonded with these kids. Some came in back just to eat with us. It wasn’t all work. We had fun too. All of them became like family to us.”
Fifty years of good food and fast service has certainly made C-Zers a hot spot for cool treats. But more than that, it has become a safe and friendly gathering place for family, friends, teens, visitors and even pets to enjoy refreshments and a friendly hometown smile that aptly represents Elgin.