Kenney’s in BV keeps grilling great sauce burgers after 50 years
By Kyle Engel
William “Bill” Kenney, Sr., who opened the doors to his first Biff Burger in Roanoke back in 1958, was widely regarded as being the “burger king” of Southwest Virginia. His hand-dipped sauce burgers kept customers of all ages and sizes coming back for nearly 50 years. In 1962 the franchise adopted the name Kenney’s, and by 1968 it had nearly 52 locations scattered across all of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia.
Daisy Shaver can recall days when she and her friends used to pile into a car and head down to Kenney’s in Buena Vista for what she claims was — and still is — “the best burger and fries in all of Virginia.”
While the burgers and many of the customers have stayed the same, Kenney’s has suffered a series of hardships over the past half-century. The arrival of McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in the 1970s doomed the Kenney chain. The Kenney family filed for bankruptcy in early 1980 and only 18 of the original 52 locations remained open for business.
Shaver, who has worked at the Buena Vista Kenney’s for 46 years, can recall how McDonald’s was able to produce burgers more cheaply and quickly back then, and it seemed as if the love people had for Kenney’s slowly began to fade. The Kenney’s name remains on only a few lonely burger stands now: one in Buena Vista, one on a dead-end hilltop in Lexington, and one in Lynchburg.
In 1963, the Slagle family purchased the Buena Vista franchise. When you walk into the restaurant in Buena Vista today, it is evident that this Kenney’s has been a cornerstone of the town since it opened its doors.
Jason Slagle, whose parents own the restaurant, has been the manager of the Buena Vista location for 14 years. “It’s just family,” he says. “My grandparents worked here, my parents worked here, and one day I want to buy this place from my parents and pay someone to run it for me.”
“When you talk about Buena Vista, the first thing you think about is Kenney’s,” he says.
Buena Vista, once a bustling industrial town, has experienced an economic decline in recent years. Slagle believes it’s just a sign of the times, but insists Kenney’s will stay successful as long as any industry remains in the area.
Unfortunately one of the biggest industry drivers in Buena Vista, Dana Corp., closed its doors in 2007, leaving 275 people without work. “Many of the local industries support our lunch and dinner rushes — mostly people coming off from work to get a quick bite to eat,” Slagel said. “We try and support each other around here.”
Slagle acknowledges this reality with a grim but hopeful tone.
“Business has slowed down since their closing, but we will always hold our own here at Kenney’s.”
Kenney’s burgers are rumored to be the first sauced burgers in the country. How they make the special sauce is a secret. Shaver has made the secret sauce for more than four decades.
“It is fun and easy to do,” she says. “Having eaten at Kenney’s for years the honor of making the sauce is all mine.”
As you enter the store, the vibe you get from its employees and customers puts you in the best of moods. Walker Taylor, a Rockbridge Baths resident, says he has been coming to Kenney’s almost once a week for about 30 years.
“Nothing beats a Swiss burger all sauced up from Kenney’s,” he says.
Slagle sees customers like Walker every day, and it’s the highlight of his job.
“Seeing the smiles we put on people’s faces makes me smile too.”