The new owners of the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Marion, Keith and Sherry Hess, have been in the food industry their entire adult lives.
Sherry has worked at nearly every restaurant in Marion County. As a teenager, she worked in both restaurants in Florence as a server.
“That was my favorite job,” she said. “It’s not thankless if you’re a good waitress.”
Later, she moved up the ladder at the Kingfisher Inn at Marion County Lake to eventually become the day manager.
“I learned a lot from Bob and Kathy Sprowls,” Sherry said.
Keith started cooking in the Army.
“Cooking out in the field is not fun,” he said.
When his service was complete, Keith was visiting relatives in Marion County when he met Sherry. They have been together since the first day they met.
Part of what connected the couple was food, particularly making sure the preparation and service of food was done right.
“We’re both kind of picky about the way things are,” Sherry said.
Even though the Wagon Wheel menu has not changed drastically after the ownership change — hamburgers and fries are still the top seller — the Hesses have put effort into the behind-the-scenes details. The fries are hand cut from fresh potatoes. The burger is from local groceries, is not frozen, and is cooked on a charbroiler — a new piece of equipment the Hesses added to the restaurant.
The vegetables for side dishes and salads are prepared from fresh produce. Even drinks receive a special treatment. The shakes are made with real ice cream and limeades with fresh limes and simple syrup.
For specialties, the Wagon Wheel features pulled pork and brisket during the week and St. Louis-style ribs on Saturday.
Although they have been in business for a month, the Wagon Wheel has a fresh set of regulars, diners who have been back to the restaurant every week and even every day.
“We do this because we enjoy all the people,” Sherry said. “You get to watch people’s kids grow up.”
The Hesses have watched many people grow up with the wealth of experience they acquired while running a limeade and funnel cake stand for fairs and festivals. Their stand is a regular fixture at Chingawassa Days, the Marion County Fair, and the Kansas State Fair.
“In four years at the state fair, the state fair has blown up around our stand,” Keith said. “They recognize us because they see us in the community every year.”
The success the Hesses have received from their limeade stand stems from a chance encounter at a Bluegrass festival in Jetmore. Keith was running a stand that sold simple meals and soft drinks. At that festival, he was set up next to a seasoned festival veteran serving limeades. With their close proximity, the two vendors started to converse. Eventually the older vendor convinced Keith to take his equipment and limeade recipe to continue his success, so he could retire from the business.
The Hesses have not seen the man in several years, but the success they have found operating the limeade stand has grown into a restaurant.
Keith said it was part of his goal this summer to connect with the man, who lives in Salina, to thank him.
The reason the Hesses can operate a restaurant open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. is that their own children are independent. With an increase of customers, multiple Hess daughters may be working in the restaurant at any given time. Their six daughters, ages 9 to 28, will do everything from serving or answering phones to running the cash register.
“Having six girls doesn’t hurt,” Keith said.
Sherry’s parents, Dale and Tootsie Snelling, have also helped in the restaurant during its infancy.
“I get enjoyment out of pleasing people,” Keith said. “You put in more hours but you need to love your job or you won’t be happy.”