You won’t find many places these days in Kansas—or America, for that matter—where you can sit down at a lunch counter next to a complete stranger and get to know him or her a little better before your order arrives.
Don’s Place in Protection is one of the few.
I had the good fortune of sitting down next to Marvin Maris, who was born and raised in the community and spent all but eight of his 82 years in Protection. Three of those eight years, incidentally, were served in the Korean War of the 1950s.
“I just love this place,” he said, claiming that it’s the “best place to eat in the world.” He admits he may be a little biased, as Don is married to his niece. “I’m related to just about everybody in town,” he added.
With a nod of his head, Marvin indicated the multiple tickets clothes-pinned to a wire line where Don busily cooked meals. “Those tickets are like that all the time. I don’t know how he keeps up with it,” he said.
Marvin said he eats two meals daily at the restaurant and has been eating here regularly since Don opened it up 40 years ago
A 22 year old Don Dillinger entered the restaurant business on September 1, 1973 and a banner inside proudly announces the 40th Anniversary of the establishment.
“Try to find any kid today that can open up a restaurant, or body shop, and stick with it. He’s done a great job,” said John Jean, who moved to town in 1973 and opened up his own longtime business, Protection Glass and Body in 1979 after graduating from the local high school in 1978.
I visited with John after Marvin left.
“Don was here at 3:30 a.m. the other day making donuts for meet you at the pole,” John said. “I’ll sure hate it when he retires. It’s going to be a loss. He draws a lot of people to this town, who visit some of the other businesses while they’re here,” he added.
After all these years, Don Dillinger has learned a few things about the restaurant business
“You’ve got to learn to work hard. So many people think, I’ve got to have this time off for me. When you work for yourself, you have to work when the business is there,” he said.
He also advised new business owners to “put money into a savings account every week, even as little as $5 or $10 to start with. Then when you accumulate enough, you can open a CD.” He admits he wishes he began to save earlier than he did.
One of Don’s fondest moments happened five years ago, when he received public recognition for his business—initially via a certificate from the Kansas Explorer’s Club.
“They approved of the way I fix my chicken fries (aka chicken fried steaks) and also recommended trying the coconut cream pie. Two weeks later, the Official Kansas Travel Guide came out and listed my restaurant as one of the 14 best places to eat pie in Kansas,” he said. Don noted that he cooks his chicken fry on a flat grill rather than deep-fat frying like so many other restaurants.
Don’s Place is still going strong 40 years down the road. If you find yourself in Protection at breakfast, lunch or suppertime, drive downtown to 230 N. Broadway for a good meal.
Hours are 6 a.m. to 8 pm. Tuesday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on Sunday.