‘We’re devastated’: Tears, hugs as Parkette employees show up to work at closed drive-in

·4 min read

Running the Parkette Drive-In had been a dream come true for Randy Kaplan and his family, including the tight-knit work family. That came to an abrupt end on Tuesday at the legendary Lexington dining spot, one of Lexington’s oldest restaurants.

Kaplan, along others working that night, found out from Bryan Tipton, son-in-law of Parley Smiley, widow of Parkette founder Joe Smiley, that their lease was ending and the family decided to immediately close the 70-year-old New Circle Road restaurant.

“We’re devastated,” Kaplan said Wednesday, holding back tears as his daughter and other employees watched from the parking lot. At least two showed up to work on Wednesday. “Parkette is a landmark, an icon in this community. Over the last 13 years, three months and 20 days it was my honor to be a part of that.”

Asked what he will miss most, Kaplan said: “The fried chicken.”

Fighting tears he said, “I’m going to miss the opportunity to enhance lives and to provide for the community.”

Former co-owner of Parkette Drive-In Randy Kaplan, left, embraced someone Wednesday after the closure of the restaurant on Tuesday. Several employees did not get the word that the Parkette had closed and showed up for their lunch shifts.
Former co-owner of Parkette Drive-In Randy Kaplan, left, embraced someone Wednesday after the closure of the restaurant on Tuesday. Several employees did not get the word that the Parkette had closed and showed up for their lunch shifts.
Former co-owner of Parkette Drive-In Randy Kaplan got emotional while talking to media.
Former co-owner of Parkette Drive-In Randy Kaplan got emotional while talking to media.

Parkette thrived during COVID, struggled recently

Kaplan said that the restaurant had a lot of ups and downs, especially over the last two and half years during the COVID pandemic.

“Running Parkette, for the community, is a fantasy. It’s a beautiful place, adorable establishment. People loved coming in here. It was like a carnival when you come into Parkette because we designed it to be that way,” Kaplan said. “We wanted you to feel like the ‘50s and a piece of Lexington history. But running Parkette as a business is very difficult.”

The Parkette Drive-In on East New Circle road ended closed after 70 years on Tuesday.
The Parkette Drive-In on East New Circle road ended closed after 70 years on Tuesday.

He said 2020, the year that COVID hit, had been financially good because customers could eat in their cars outdoors. But by 2022 the tide turned: Cooler weather and higher gas prices meant that the seasonal return of customers didn’t happen until June this year.

That was just too late. He and his brother, Jeff, months ago began negotiating with the family of the late Parkette founder Joe Smiley to end the lease.

But until Tuesday Randy Kaplan hoped he would be able to keep running the restaurant either solo or as a manager for the family.

“We were under the impression we were going to remain operating as normal. I was actually told that,” Kaplan said. “I was going to stay on as the operating manager of the company, keep my crew and look at improvements.”

The restaurant property is owned by the family of the late Parkette founder Joe Smiley. After the Kaplans, who had been operating the Parkette, asked to end their lease, the family decided to close the restaurant.
The restaurant property is owned by the family of the late Parkette founder Joe Smiley. After the Kaplans, who had been operating the Parkette, asked to end their lease, the family decided to close the restaurant.
A stone wall lies partially fallen apart at the base of the iconic Parkette Drive-In neon sign for the restaurant on New Circle Road, June 29, 2022. The long-time Lexington, Ky. restaurant, known for its fried chicken and fish served in boxes and “Poor Boy” double-decker burgers, closed after more than 70 years in business on June 28, 2022.
A stone wall lies partially fallen apart at the base of the iconic Parkette Drive-In neon sign for the restaurant on New Circle Road, June 29, 2022. The long-time Lexington, Ky. restaurant, known for its fried chicken and fish served in boxes and “Poor Boy” double-decker burgers, closed after more than 70 years in business on June 28, 2022.

He considered a GoFundMe or other fund-raising effort to get the Parkette’s famous neon sign featuring a carhop back in working order.

Kaplan said that he and the community, as well as the Smiley family, wanted to make the restaurant vibrant again “but the revenue was not there.”

Founding family: ‘They were struggling financially’

Bryan Tipton, son-in-law of Parley Smiley, the widow of Joe Smiley, said that the family agreed to end the lease and decided to close it down because they did not see it as a viable business. Without an infusion of cash, the place just couldn’t keep going, he said.

Kaplan and the employees learned of the decision late Tuesday, Tipton said.

“They were struggling financially. We did not want Parkette to end that way, in someone’s financial ruin or in a bankruptcy or something like that ... so we let them out of their lease,” Tipton said.

“It’s a tragedy, it’s very sad. No one wants Parkette to go away,” Tipton said. “Everyone loves Parkette, they have fond memories. But they don’t come here. They have to pass a hundred fast food restaurants before they get here. And that’s just the changing of times.”

Asked about what the plans are for the site, which is next to a Lexus dealership just off Liberty Road, Tipton said they family doesn’t know what will become of the land, the sign or the vintage ‘50s memorabilia.

“Obviously there’s a lot of options for this property but we do not know yet,” Tipton said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

“This was a very tough decision for this family,” he said. “This place is an icon in Lexington and the man that built it, in my opinion, is too.”

He hoped that customers would celebrate the business that Joe Smiley started and brought such joy to so many over the decades.

Parkette Drive-In history

Smiley opened the restaurant on what was the outskirts of town, before the road known then as the Belt Line had been finished. He brought in the idea of the Poor Boy double-decker hamburger and launched a special fried chicken that he called Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In fact, Tipton said, KFC eventually sued Tipton over the name. “They had to pay Joe for the rights to say it after they lost the lawsuit. Joe also came up with the phrase, ‘finger-lickin’ gravy,’” which KFC adapted, Tipton said.

Smiley also peeled potatoes by hand for the first French fries. The restaurant didn’t switch to frozen until 1959.

Smiley retired in 1984 and died in 2001. It closed briefly then a group of investors including Alan Stein reopened it before the Kaplans took over the lease in 2008. They renovated and added additional seating in 2013.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting