Beyond the Burger - Duncan's Market & Grill
It’s time for another installment of our occasional series, Beyond the Burger where Austin Carter seeks out stories of an iconic American food and the people behind it. Today he visits a spot in eastern Calloway County, that provides more than just a great burger but also a sense of community and history to boot.
Elm Grove, Kentucky, just east of Murray, is a place you would normally just pass through on your way to somewhere else. With the expansion of US 68-KY 80, there’s less traffic through the community than in years passed but one business provides a certain draw for folks to make a stop in Elm Grove. Duncan’s Market and Grill is the latest incarnation of a gas station, store and restaurant that has operated on Highway 94 east for many years. Brad Duncan and his mother Cathy, have a long history when it comes to cooking up a great burger.
“I’ve worked, this will be 25 years I’ve done this,” Brad says. “You know, [I] started at Belew’s, she started there and you know, we just decided to open our own place around 5 years ago.”
With years of experience and the reputation they built from working down the road in Aurora at the regionally iconic, Belew’s Dairy Bar, the Duncans set up shop in a building that was already known as Duncan’s from previous ownership. It didn’t take long for them to establish themselves and build up a loyal customer base.
Brad said, “I see several of the same people every day in here you know. Some of them eat breakfast, lunch
and then they’ll come back and eat at night for dinner. I’ve never wanted to eat at a place that many times in one day but I see some of the same faces every day that I’m here.”
A couple of the folks you may see in Duncan’s on any given day are Frankie Adams and his brother Donnie. Frankie says, once you’ve had a Duncan’s burger, nothing else compares. But he stops in nearly every day for more than just a delicious burger.
“I’ve got neighbors that live a quarter mile from the house that I don’t ever see and I’ll see them in here,” Adams says. “Just like Sam there, I bet it’s been six months since I’ve seen Sam. You don’t socialize much out like that. But you just come to the store here and you can sit down and talk, have a good burger, get full, and go on about your business.”
That sense of community and connection is something the Duncan’s have forged through decades of food service in the area. Cathy Duncan grew up “between the rivers,” in Golden Pond, in what is now Land Between the Lakes. Her family left Golden Pond with the rest of those remaining between the rivers in 1968 when she was 15 years old, the same year she started working at Belew’s.
“Started out as a car-hop several years and then I worked inside. And probably on and off over the years I probably worked 40 plus years for them,” Kathy said. “Good people to work for, very good work ethic. Mrs. Belew taught, ‘if you’ve got time to stand, you’ve got time to clean.’ And she taught us, good food, good service, made for customers coming back.”
Those lessons served the Duncans well as they started their own business. They don’t always have gas because the profit margin is slim and the costs are high. But you can grab a loaf of bread, a 12 pack of sodas, or some potato chips, if you’re a local in need of a few things without having to drive in to town. But burgers are the main draw at Duncan’s, and they cook them in a very specific way that is influenced by their time at Belew’s as Brad Duncan explains.
“It’s just thin and the edges are crispy. I mean that’s what everybody knows, it’s gonna be a thinner patty with a crispy edge.”
If burger making can be considered an art form, with 60 years of combined experience, the Duncans have perfected their craft. But I got the feeling being at Duncan’s that the quality of the food was just as important as the quality of the experience. Kind and attentive service, a sense of community, and a connection to days gone by figure prominently in the allure of Duncan’s Market and Grill. I asked Cathy if she’d ever tried to figure up how many burgers she’s served in her lifetime.
“Oh gosh, I don’t want to know,” Kathy said. “I’m pretty old now and I’d be even more tired if I knew how many. It’s a bunch.”
Cathy may not want to remember all the burgers she’s served, but there’s a good chance that their thin crispy patties might be a memory-maker for you.