Drive-in serves up hope, healing,
and award-winning burgers
Before Chad and Heather Whitney owned the Circle E Drive-In – a popular Murdo institution for four decades – they were one of two producers to supply local beef to the restaurant. The amount of hamburger they sold the drive-in sparked a flame that had them wondering whether they might one day make a go of operating the restaurant themselves.
“It’s been a seed that has been planted for many years,” Heather admits. “If you’re going to be in business in Murdo, everybody has always loved the Murdo Drive-In.”
Their gamble paid off: in a state that has a love affair with beef, the Circle E’s cheeseburger was voted as South Dakota’s best. That’s saying a lot.
Cooking runs in the family
In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that the Whitneys ended up owning a restaurant. Heather held waitressing jobs from a young age throughout college, and meals often took center stage in Chad’s family. His grandparents always had good food on the table and made everyone feel welcome. In fact, the drive-in is named after his grandfather, Eldon, whose ranch brand was the Circle E.
“That was the main thing,” Chad recalls. “My grandma could cook really well. And on one of our first dates, Heather tried making me some green pork chops. I knew after that I was really going to have to start cooking.”
He had a great mentor in his grandmother, learning to cook by paying attention to everything she did in the kitchen. By Heather’s admission – and the many positive Yelp and Google reviews – Chad mastered those culinary skills and has become a talented cook himself. Yelp analysts declared their cheeseburger the “best in South Dakota” in 2023 using data obtained from online reviewers.
Big Al burger pays homage to Alec
Chad and Heather took over ownership of the Circle E in May 2022. The timing was bittersweet; the restaurant opened just four days after their son, Alec, passed away due to complications from Type 1 Diabetes.
“I like to share the story of Alec because I like to think it keeps him alive,” Heather says. “I think [opening the drive-in] helped us. We surround ourselves with good people and keep his spirit alive.”
His spirit lives on in The Big Al, a jalapeno cream cheeseburger named after Alec that has quickly become a customer favorite. The Whitneys were inspired by the previous owners, whose jalapeno burger special was a big hit whenever it showed up on the menu.
“We wrap the burgers and then we write what’s in it,” Heather says. “I always put a heart on the burger because that’s my way of showing my love for Alec.”
Fresh burgers, frozen treats
Chad and Heather pride themselves on serving fresh food using their own beef as much as possible. All burger patties are made fresh by hand the same day; for something frozen and delicious, try the blended ice cream treats, shakes, or malts. Seasonal specials like the caramel apple crisp, and monster cookie dough round out the menu.
A new change that Heather and Chad made this year is to be open all year. The drive-in is closed on Tuesdays from September through May but is open seven days a week during the summer.
Community and staff support new venture
The Whitneys credit the community of Murdo for their success.
“The community really welcomed us with open arms knowing we didn’t have any culinary experience,” Heather shares. “It’s not always affordable to eat out. But the ones that can support us do support us, and we’re very appreciative of it.”
They also value and respect all the staff members working for them and are grateful for the support from the previous owners.
“Once they start here, they work about four or five years until they go off to college,” Chad says. “It helps having the continuity of your staff come back every year.”
That includes sons Gunnar and Bodie, who pitch in during the summer months. And despite other responsibilities – Heather is a part-time dental hygienist in Pierre and Chad took over Alec’s snow removal business and continues to ranch on the side – the couple aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to make the Circle E a success.
“We try to put out a really good product,” Heather says. “But we also do the same things everybody else does. We clean the toilets; we mop the floors. We aren’t above our staff by any means – we’re right there with them.”
No chicken fried steak without Golden West
Golden West plays an important role, as well … even if it’s behind the scenes.
“We are so thankful for our Golden West services,” Heather explains. “If we didn’t have service in this building, people wouldn’t know when we’re having chicken fried steak for the special.”
“The Golden West guys come in here to eat quite a bit,” Chad adds with a chuckle.
Both appreciate the fact that if there are ever issues with the POS system or other services, a Golden West technician is there right away to troubleshoot.
Though it’s a lot of work and the couple are frequently exhausted, they could not be happier running the business.
“It just keeps you going,” Chad says. “It’s tiring, but fun. We meet a lot of great people.”
“I feel like we’re doing it for our community,” Heather adds. “And for the people that are passing through to have a good experience and to know what South Dakota’s hospitality can be.”