PULLMAN – Every day, Ray Stephens Sr. would sit at a booth in his restaurant with the heat cranked up, eat a Cub Burger and drink a vanilla malt.
“If he were here today, the temperature would be up at 80 degrees, and he’d be sitting right over here eating a Dandy Bar,” grandson Craig Stephens said.
Any Pullman resident, any Washington State University student or alum knows that only at Cougar Country Drive-In can you find a Cub Burger and a Dandy Bar ice cream bar.
Nearly 35 years after founding the restaurant, Ray Stephens died April 15 at the age of 78. He had emphysema and cancer.
It was only in the last few weeks that Stephens didn’t spend mornings – 6:30 to 11 a.m. – making sure the business was in order.
“He would stand there and fry bacon with his oxygen tank,” said Craig Stephens, 33. “I’d try to tell him oxygen’s flammable, but he’d just stand back – and make sure the bacon was straight.
“If you’ve eaten any bacon here, you’ve eaten his bacon.”
In 1973, when he opened what would become a Pullman landmark, Stephens didn’t know anything about running a restaurant, said his daughter Rhonda Witt, who manages Cougar Country. He got the idea for the restaurant’s name from a billboard he saw when he was moving to Pullman: “Welcome to Cougar Country.”
Stephens was born April 26, 1929, in Jackson Parrish, La. He and his wife, Trudy, were married when he was 16 and she was 15. Their family relocated to Yakima, where they owned and managed fruit orchards. Then he co-owned a bowling alley in Omak.
He would bowl four to five times a week in Pullman. And if there was a day he wasn’t bowling, he was probably at Zeppoz lanes anyway, watching his wife throw down the pins.
But Stephens never rolled a perfect game, his grandson said.
“That damn 10-pin was his nemesis,” Craig Stephens said. “If there was one thing in the world he could get rid of, it would be that damn 10-pin.”
Stephens met most of his good friends through bowling, Craig Stephens said. But he knew hundreds of people because of the popularity of Cougar Country.
It’s a destination for students and alumni, school buses and sports teams, celebrities and concertgoers. Country singer Kenny Rogers ate there. So did actress Valerie Bertinelli, now a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig diet systems. Not to mention Cougars sports stars Jack Thompson, Reuben Mayes, Drew Bledsoe, John Olerud and Craig Ehlo.
“Glenn Johnson’s our biggest customer,” Witt said, referring to Pullman’s mayor.
Johnson said he orders food from Cougar Country after every WSU basketball game, where he is the public address announcer.
“I have them on speed dial on my cell phone,” he said. “People are thinking, ‘Oh, the mayor gets special attention.’ But no, anyone can phone in.”
When Johnson moved to Pullman in 1979, Cougar Country had already affirmed itself as “the restaurant” in town, he said. It has since survived the opening of a McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen – something Burger King, which has twice opened and closed in Pullman, has not been able to accomplish.
Cougar Country has been remodeled only once, about a decade ago, to update tables and booths, put in a tile floor, and paint the inside crimson and gray.
“He had a very strong idea about how to run the business,” Witt, 53, said of her father. “He was very old school.”
Years ago, Stephens was walking through the restaurant when he overheard a patron say the burger patties were thin as paper, Witt said. Within days, Cougar Country was serving thicker patties.
She joked about her father’s opinion that anything can be fixed with duct tape. And he was strict about getting the bacon – his morning obsession – just perfect.
“He thought he was the glue that held that place together,” Witt said.
For the past few years, every morning Stephens would take Cougar Country food to his wife for breakfast. Now 77, Trudy Stephens had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and no longer cooked.
In 1996, when Paradise Creek flooded downtown Pullman and hundreds of townspeople worked to stack sandbags, Stephens ordered 300 hamburgers cooked for the workers. Johnson was among those wading through the water.
“That’s not uncommon. If we’ve had some big fire or something that we’re all going to, they’ll open their doors,” Johnson said of Cougar Country.
And Stephens would hire just about anyone who needed the work.
“He always said, ‘I will try to help anybody who’s trying to help themselves,’ ” Witt said. “Nobody wanted to disappoint him, because he was such a nice guy.”
Cougar Country has 34 employees – mostly students working part time, but a few full-time hands, Craig Stephens said.
Three of Stephens’ four children have worked there. Ray Stephens Jr. has managed it along with Witt. Grandson Craig Stephens, an adviser for WSU’s distance degree program, worked there for 15 years.
And one of Stephens’ great-grandchildren, 19-year-old Levi Wells, is ordering supplies like his great-grandfather did for so long.
Cougar Country fans need not worry now that Ray Stephens is gone – at least according to family friend Johnson.
“To be honest with you,” Johnson said, “with Ray Jr. and Rhonda running it, it’ll be exactly the same.”
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