Business & Professional
Drabenstot Family & Nick Freienstein
States often declare official symbols such as birds, trees, flowers, and even food. In Indiana, while there has never been a formal declaration by state officials, it has been commonly accepted that the state sandwich is the breaded pork tenderloin. Many eateries across Indiana claim to have created the crispy bun-filler, and even more say they produce the best one the state has to offer.
But only at Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington does the tenderloin tale have firm roots, with a recipe dating to 1904, a moment in national politics, and a dash of marketing backing the famous product. Now unofficially recognized as the birthplace of the sandwich, Nick’s Kitchen is recognized at the top of nearly every ranking as offering the best tenderloin in Indiana and throughout the Midwest.
The Drabenstot family has owned Nick’s since 1969, but the restaurant’s history dates back more than 100 years.
Nick Freienstein was born in Huntington in 1876. He dropped out of parochial school at the age of 12, finding work with a local cigar factory. He bounced around from job-to-job over the next 15 years, including working at a confectionary and a grocery store.
In 1904, Freienstein struck out on his own, selling hamburgers from a pushcart around the square of the new Huntington County Courthouse. His sandwich became such popular fare that Freienstein built a 10x10-foot stand under a stairway at the corner of Jefferson and Market streets. By 1908, he was able to move his business to a permanent structure. Nick’s Kitchen opened at 506 N. Jefferson Street, where it remains today.
Along with his famous hamburgers, Freienstein developed another item that quickly became a local favorite. A child of German immigrants, he was familiar with the wiener schnitzel – a thinly-pounded veal cutlet that is breaded and fried and eaten with a knife and fork. Freienstein substituted veal with the more readily available pork and made it portable by putting the cutlet on a bun with pickles and onions. Whether or not he was the first to do it, the legend of the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich had begun.
Freienstein sold his business in 1929 to a pair of local men who retained the name of the restaurant, which by that time had already become a Huntington landmark. Freienstein died in 1941. The restaurant changed hands twice more, eventually purchased by Gene and Peggy Drabenstot in 1969. Gene worked for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, so he and Peggy renovated Nick’s Kitchen and covered the walls with a distinctive railroad theme. Gene retired from the railroad in 1981 and purchased a second restaurant in Roanoke, naming it Nick’s Junction.
All five of the Drabenstot children took part in the family business. Daughters Jean Anne, Nancy, and Linda, and sons Jim and Mark started by washing dishes before the age of 10, and were cooking before they were teenagers.
Jean Anne bought Nick’s Kitchen from her parents in 1989, and she and her husband Kenny Bailey still run the original downtown restaurant. Jim and his wife Dana purchased Nick’s Junction in Roanoke that same year. In 1992, Nancy and her husband Ray Bonebrake opened Nick’s Country Cafe in Huntington. All three locations feature the famous tenderloin.
Nick’s Kitchen has been featured in national magazines and on travel and cooking television shows. Social media and numerous other internet sources have spread the diner’s tale globally. The legend of Nick’s Kitchen also grew when one of Huntington’s own drew attention to the diner. As a young lawyer in Huntington, Dan Quayle often grabbed a bite at Nick’s and continued to frequent the spot after he won a seat in the House of Representatives and later was elected senator. In 1988, Quayle was tabbed as the running mate for presidential hopeful George H.W. Bush. When Quayle returned to Huntington that summer, he had the national press corps in tow. He made his familiar visit to Nick’s Kitchen, and with television cameras and reporters packed in alongside the regular local clientele, Quayle stood on a chair and delivered an impromptu stump speech and thank you to his hometown, making sure to get his tenderloin sandwich.
Although foodies often travel many miles for their tenderloin fix at Nick’s Kitchen remains a destination for locals. Regulars come in daily, having gathered for years for lunch or breakfast, attempting to solve the world’s problems or to rehash the previous night’s Huntington North basketball game.
While Gene Drabenstot died in 2008 and Peggy in 2009, the legacy of Nick’s Kitchen remains in good hands. The three restaurant-owning children enjoy getting out of the kitchen and meeting customers, whether they are regulars or visitors coming in for the first time. The next generation of the family has also gotten involved in the business. Jean Anne’s son Mason has become a master pie-maker. More generations are bound to come for the famous tenderloin, and stay for the pie.