It all began with a trio of businesses built on neighboring properties on West Parrish Avenue, each given a celestial name — Starlite Drive-In, Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper itself was the vision of George Osborne, whose original thoughts of owning a Dairy Queen franchise soon transitioned into taking a chance on his own to create something new.
The Early Years
In 1954, Osborne built the Big Dipper in order to sell soft serve ice cream on family-owned property next to Moonlite Bar-B-Q. According to his son Robert, George came out and moved dirt so that he could “trade frontage space for the land behind him.” Then, in the mid-60s, he added a drive up wing along with a big neon sign, featuring a hamburger and an ice cream cone, expanding his menu and his business.
Often referred to as the “Happy Days” of the 60s and 70s, the Big Dipper was a popular hangout for teenagers and was even rumored to serve as a back way to sneak into the drive-in. But in 1981, the Dipper was affected by storm damage that tore off all of the signage and destroyed a good portion of the addition. That same summer, Parrish Avenue underwent an expansion from two lanes to five, and McDonald’s was built nearby. The parking lot out front that once held cars two deep, was now reduced to only an entrance and exit, which really concerned George.
Robert said he was a junior accounting major at the University of Kentucky (UK) at the time and, at that point, his father had bought a small farm and was ready to retire and farm for a living. Robert came home to help his father repair the roof and also custom built the menu boards and current Big Dipper sign that stands out front today.
“That summer I came home, there were no signs; it was just the building,” Robert said. “My friend and I helped Dad put the roof back on. That was really a pivotal time and that’s when I fell in love with the business.”
George reopened the restaurant, and Robert completed his accounting degree at UK and moved to Denver where there was more opportunity for work in a struggling economy. George continued to experience success at the Dipper and soon found himself in need of additional help.
“I worked for a rare coins dealer in Denver and had the most exciting job you could ever have,” Robert said. “It was the hardest decision of my life. I loved what I was doing in Denver. But I saw this business and I was like, somebody’s got to do it. It turns out it was the best decision. It was the right decision.”
In 1984, Robert moved back to Owensboro to help his father run the restaurant. He convinced his girlfriend Terry to relocate from Denver and married her six months later. Although Robert missed Denver, the job and the life he had there, he found that family came first.
“It was hard to give that up and come back to this,” Robert said. “But my dad and I were best friends — he was my best man at my wedding. We would work here and then we would go out to the farm, and every evening he and I were together. If I wasn’t here, I was with him working. Those were fantastic times.”
What Makes Them Unique
Over the years, the Big Dipper has maintained a consistent menu and managed to offer several items that are not only unique to their restaurant but have quickly become Owensboro favorites.
One of the most popular menu items is the Dipper’s old-fashioned hamburger.
“That’s a unique item,” Robert said. “You could change it, you could improve it — you could make it better. I won’t claim that this is the best burger ever — but it’s a unique burger that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Robert said their burger is different because they use a beef patty mix made with 75 percent lean hand-packed beef and binder flour (similar to what is used to make sausage) from a company in Uniontown, Ky. He then places the mix in custom rectangular loaf trays which he created, and places the meat in the freezer until it’s firm enough to be sliced.
“What that does is it gives you a hamburger that you can put on a grill fast,” Robert said. “You can sear it on one side, you can stack it and hold it and it doesn’t dry out like an all-beef burger will. It’s really similar to what you would do with a meatloaf. That’s what gives us the speed and the quickness — and keeps my prices where people will continue to come in.”
Not only has the Dipper become known for their burgers, but their pigs in a blanket are also a customer favorite, in spite of the time it takes to prepare them. Robert said, if the Dipper had a secret menu item it would be the “Spicy pig,” which consists of placing ghost pepper cheese in the middle of a traditional pig in a blanket and wrapping it with bacon.
“That’s an item that we do that a lot of people don’t realize that we still do,” Robert said. “A lot of the stuff that we make, we do it [ourselves], and that’s what makes it special — you can’t find it somewhere else.”
Another offering that sets the Dipper apart are their milkshakes. In 2017, Big Dipper was awarded third place by “Kentucky Living” for best milkshake in the state of Kentucky, behind popular restaurant chains Steak ‘n Shake and Dairy Queen.
Robert again credits the in-depth processes they perform, such as cooking the peaches and the pineapple prior to running them through the processor to break them down enough to put them into a milkshake and get them through a straw.
While Robert said there are the tried and true items that will always be on the menu, he has added a few items over the years including chicken strips and a grilled chicken sandwich.
“We used to sell about 1,000 hamburgers a day,” Robert said. “That’s slowing down [to about 800]. People want more chicken.”
Values and Work Ethic
Robert said he has learned so much from the work ethic of those around him over the years. From Juanita Clark that spent three to four hours a day wrapping pigs in a blanket for over 50 years, to his father that, even at age 82, still came into the Dipper every day with his cane offering to help run the grill or slice tomatoes.
“He taught me that a man’s only as good as his word and that’s stayed with me to this day,” Robert said. “That’s something that has stuck with me my whole life. So when I tell my employees I’m going to do something or I’m going to be there, it’s going to happen. That’s just something, a work ethic and an idea, that a lot of people have lost.”
Robert said he has also become a good listener, both to his employees and his customers and that has made all the difference.
“If you just listen to your customers, if you listen to your employees and your workers, you’ll learn what needs to be done and how to do it,” Robert said.
When asked if he would ever consider opening another Big Dipper location, Robert smiled and politely declined.
“Maybe 25 years ago,” Robert said. “No, my dad always said, ‘If you run one and you run it well, you don’t need two or three.’”
As to the near future, Robert said he is currently trying to envision a more modernized front to the restaurant while still keeping with tradition and keeping in line with the right of way and easements
He hopes to purchase more surrounding property and eventually add the original star from the Starlite Drive-In, which he had sandblasted and repainted, between the Dipper and Moonlite to maintain the history between the three establishments.
As far as retirement, Robert said he is uncertain when and if that will happen.
“I keep thinking I will retire, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen,” Robert said. “I have some great girls that are stepping up and I’m slowly kind of trying to pass it on to them. But I’ve been blessed. Those people are an inspiration to me and that’s why I still love this and that’s why I don’t know if I can ever leave it.”