PITTSBURG, Kan. — Larry Zerngast’s life has centered around family-style meals.
Zerngast owns Chicken Mary’s, which helped put Crawford County on the map as a hotspot for fried chicken dinners in southeast Kansas.
But now he wants to retire. He is looking for a buyer who will perpetuate the values of the restaurant’s slogan: “Perpetuating the family tradition”.
Chicken Mary’s was started in the early 1940s by her grandmother, Mary Zerngast. She put her cooking skills to good use selling hot meals to guests at her kitchen table after her husband, Joe, began to have health problems that prevented him from continuing to work in the coal mines of southeastern Kansas.
As more and more customers came for his fried chicken, in 1945 the couple were able to buy what had been a billiard room in the Foxtown mining camp. This location was just west of the current restaurant on East 600th Avenue, northeast of Frontenac. The business has been so successful that their sons, Zig and Mickey, have helped out on busy weekends. After Joe’s death in 1961, Zig and his wife, Tootie, helped Mary run the restaurant. After Mary had a stroke that year, the restaurant temporarily closed. It was reopened by Zig and Tootie, who in 1966 moved the restaurant to the larger building at its current location.
After Zig’s death in 1990, Larry Zerngast and his wife, Karen, helped Tootie run the place, eventually taking over his operation.
They have close ties with two other family farms. Zig and Tootie’s daughter, Donna, and her husband, Anthony Pichler, own Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s, south of Pittsburgh.
Larry’s cousin, Richard Zerngast, previously owned and operated a Chicken Mary’s restaurant on North Range Line Road in Joplin, which was later purchased to become Granny Shaffer’s.
Not only does Larry Zerngast appreciate his family’s connection to the restaurant, he said he treats his trusted employees like family and enjoys seeing customers gather at his restaurant in family groups to enjoy a meal together. .
“Moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers brought their kids here, and they got married and brought their kids, and it just goes on and on,” Zerngast said.
There is a lot of family in his operation today.
His 53-year-old right-hand man is restaurant manager Lana Brooks. Her husband, Harold, along with assistant managers Joyce and Lori Lloyd, who are Lana’s sisters, share management duties.
Zerngast’s focus on customers and employees has recently been crucial.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, “Lana and I were sweaty about what we were going to do to get help,” Zerngast said.
But they ended up with all the help they needed, Brooks said. “Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year, and we’ve had former employees call us and ask, ‘Do you need any help?'”
“We’re talking about people who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, basketball coaches. They came back and worked for us this weekend,” Zerngast said. “They saved our butts.”
Brooks started working at Chicken Mary’s when she was 12 years old.
“His (Zerngast’s) mother was a neighbor of my family,” she says. “So we knew the restaurant. There was a special pair of jeans that came out, a well-known brand in a very expensive store, and I wanted them and my mom said, “You gotta get a job if you want those.” So I went up to his mother on the street and said, “I need a job.”
She got the job. Her parents took her and picked her up at the end of her shift. “I had my jeans and I never left,” Brooks said of her career.
While she’s been there for 53 years, her sister, Joyce, took 47, and her sister Lori, 45. Her husband worked for Kansas City Southern for years, and when the railroad closed its operations in Pittsburgh and his job ended, he went to work at the restaurant. “So it’s definitely a family affair,” Brooks said.
“We’re going to walk through the mall – the three sisters – and people say, ‘There’s the pullets. We are the faces because we have been here so long.
Although it’s a lot of work, Brooks enjoys being known for her work and working with the Zerngasts.
“I love the families” involved in the operation who frequent the restaurant, she says. “We have super nice customers. I meet them on the street, and maybe I don’t know their name and they don’t know mine, but they know I’m the chick from Chicken Mary’s.
There are 30-40 people employed at the restaurant, most of them high school and college students who work part-time.
They sell between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of chicken a week.
There is a lot of chicken business in and around Pittsburgh, a city of 20,000 people. There are no less than six chicken restaurants in the county that specialize in their own homemade chicken recipes with the toppings.
A stone’s throw from Chicken Mary’s is the well-known Chicken Annie’s, which was the first chicken coop to be established here, dating back to 1934. It was also started by a woman, Ann Pichler, whose husband was disabled in a mine. .
The friendly rivalry between Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s has been a tourist promotion theme for southeast Kansas.
A popular novel, “The Chicken Sisters,” written by Pittsburgh native KJ Dell’Antonia, was loosely based on the history of chicken restaurants and the Pichler connection.
This book was featured in actress and TV host Reese Witherspoon’s “Pick of the Month Book Club” and earned a spot as a New York Times bestseller.
In 2010, the Travel Channel aired a three-episode contest on “The Southeast Kansas Chicken Wars”. In the final segment, a five-member panel of blindfolded judges gave the title to Chicken Mary’s by a vote of 3-2.
“Every time we do that, whether you’re Chicken Annie’s, Chicken Mary’s or whatever, it gets a lot of customers,” Zerngast said. “We asked people to go to dinner and compare it with another place and do a little quiz to find out which ones they prefer.”