Back in 1978, the area known as Hawks Prairie was little more than truck stop off of I-5. According to Jim Kerzie, “There was a little fire station and a gas station,” and that was about it. Then his father, Ken Kerzie decided to build a restaurant just off the exit ramp, and the rest is history. The Hawks Prairie Restaurant and Sports Bar, in business for 33 years now, is a bona fide Thurston County landmark and institution.
After working in the family business since 1997, Jim Kerzie started running the restaurant about eight years ago. Since taking over from his father, he’s made some physical renovations, and he’s tinkered with the menu to streamline it a bit. But he knows better than to try and fix something that isn’t broken. Over the decades, the folks at Hawks Prairie have seen other dining establishments come and go while they’ve been able to maintain a steady, loyal clientele. When asked the secret to the establishment’s longevity, head cook Rob Owens is quick to answer, “The heart of Hawks Prairie is good people, great food, and a good atmosphere.”
Owens should know. He was just 17 when he took a job at the fledgling restaurant roughly a month after it opened. He began as a dishwasher, then, three months later, he started cooking. He and Jeff Phillips, the other head cook, helped create the restaurant’s signature items. Ken Kerzie would come to them and say he had eaten a particular dish and wanted to try it at Hawks Prairie. “We’d figure it out and put it on the menu,” says Owens. They don’t claim to be gourmet chefs. They’re just good, self-taught cooks serving good American fare.
“Our number one seller is chicken fried steak. We have killer huge omelets, and people come here just for our hash browns,” says Kerzie. “It’s been the same recipes for the last 30 years.” Hawks Prairie has won multiple “Best Of” breakfast awards over the years, but they serve a full lunch and dinner menu as well. A few years ago they competed in the Swan Town Chowder Cook Off and surprised themselves by winning. “We went in there not knowing what we were doing, and we ended up taking first place,” claims Kerzie. They used the same recipe they’ve served every Friday since they opened. “We’re (best) known as a breakfast house, but if you look at our menu, you’ll see certified Angus Beef,” he says. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner: We serve great meals.”
Kerzie employs fifty people at the restaurant. A number of the serving staff have been there for over twenty years, something almost unheard of in the restaurant business. In addition to Owens and Phillips, two more staff members have worked at the restaurant for 30-plus years.
Bartender Dirk Harper will celebrate 20 years at Hawks Prairie this June. “I love the people,” he says. “Every day feels like you’re coming into work to visit your friends.” The story he uses to illustrate his point is a personal one. “When I came here and applied for a job, this lady interviewed me, and I ended up marrying her. We’ve been married for 19 years this coming May. She hired me and about 5 months later we had a date and got married about 4 months after that. We have two kids.” His wife, Wendy, worked at Hawks Prairie for 14 years.
Kerzie knows that many regulars come in because of the staff. “He has a huge following,” he says, referring to Harper. Although the restaurant side opens at 6 a.m., a number of groups come in on a weekly basis to see Dirk at breakfast. To accommodate that, the bar opens for seating at 7:30 each morning. “They’re not drinking,” he says. “They sit at the bar with a paper and socialize.” Harper is able to do a lot of prep work while visiting with his friends, and the tradition of the breakfast “counter,” lost during a major remodel six years ago, is maintained. The regulars love it.
In fact, Hawks Prairie caters to a steady stream of regular customers. Some have been coming in since the day they opened. “I specifically bought that (round) table and put it over there for a group of five to six (people) who come in every single Friday for lunch,” explains Kerzie, pointing to a large table in the corner of the sports bar. Local service organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis, and The Chamber of Commerce schedule weekly and monthly meetings in rooms that can be closed off from the rest of the restaurant with accordion doors.
On a typical day, Hawks Prairie serves between 450 and 700 people, but last month during the ice storm, when their regulars, their friends and neighbors, were without power, the restaurant was packed solid for four days straight. On the first day alone, they managed to serve 1850 meals. “We have a backup generator,” says Kerzie. ” We’ve been known for that for the past 25 or 30 years. When the power goes out, (people) automatically come here.”
“We’re a big family restaurant. A lot of these people have been here and dedicated their lives,” says Kerzie about his staff. It’s not just a job to them. It’s about being part of something bigger. They form relationships with their customers. “It’s about this establishment. It’s an icon.” When his father named Hawks Prairie Restaurant 33 years ago, he named it after the area, and although the landscape has changed a lot over the course of the years, the people at Hawks Prairie Restaurant and Sports Bar have worked hard to serve their community and represent it well, to be good friends and neighbors. And they are.