When something's working for you, there's no big reason to make many changes.
And that's the philosophy of Carey Lee Hetrick, who this month is celebrating his 30th year in the restaurant business in Cherokee.
Hetrick, 64, has operated Carey's Restaurant at 115 S. 2nd St. (U.S. Highway 59) ever since 1978, when he "bought" the former Al's Cafe on a handshake and a $1,000 lease from the late Al Horton, a former Cherokee barber and restauranteur.
After immediately expanding the menu and serving home-made meals of ample portions just like Mom would make, Hetrick has stuck to that theory and made very few menu changes in his 30-year history. Carey's forte is his noon specials, always featuring a main course, vegetable, mashed potatoes and gravy at a modest price.
Hetrick's wife, Carol, runs the Christian Book Store they own adjacent to the cafe. How they came to own and operate a Christian Book Store is worth the telling, as in his younger life, Carey Hetrick, God and religion, were not seated at the same table.
Hetrick graduated from Cherokee Washington High School in 1962 and, as were many rebels without a cause children of the 60s, began to enjoy the good side of the social life.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964 and worked in Army Security until his discharge in 1967, when he was summoned back to Cherokee to care for his ailing mother.
He tended bar at the former Speelmon's Steak House in Cherokee and later attended Buena Vista College in Storm Lake for about 1 1/2 years on the G.I. Bill.
After some fun-filled, legal and illegal times, Carey decided that college wasn't for him and in 1975 opened his own bar - Carey's Bar & Grill - at 208 W. Maple St., the site of his current Christian Book Store.
His food specialties in the bar included tacos and, at the time, he began serving his own invention - taco pizza. A few years later, major pizza chains began offering taco pizzas, and any thoughts of royalties for Hetrick were out the window.
However, living life in the fast lane and every night being Saturday night, soon had one serious side effect on the personable man most everyone called "friend." After a 3-day bender of booze, gambling, and whatever else he might have been doing at the time, Hetrick, who never hesitated to jump into the middle of, or maybe even start, a good bar fight, came face-to-face with his mortality and future.
"I was drunk for three days, lost $3,000 gambling, hadn't been home, and my wife was going to divorce me. Man, I had bottomed out," said Hetrick, his eyes moist from the fearful recollection. "I was abusing everything in my life.
"That's when I asked the Lord to come into my life because I sure needed His help. That was in 1981, and I've had this wonderful calm and purpose in life ever since that night 27 years ago."
After a few months of hesitance at continuing to run a bar and serve booze while walking hand-in-hand with the Lord, Carey came to the realization that he must serve God in different ways.
Cold turkey, he had quit the booze and the gambling, made amends and had his wife and home back, so he took a leap of faith and closed the bar and opened the Christian Book Store in 1982.
"The Book Store is our ministry, the restaurant our means of support," said Hetrick. "We've been blessed ever since. We've been blessed with good help, good customers, and good friends and neighbors. Hard telling where I would have ended up had I not found the Lord."
Part of Carey's Restaurant is a Steak House in a separate room. However, he doesn't serve alcohol there, and does little advertising, so the Steak House flies under the radar for many who enjoy an adult beverage with their dinners on a night out.
One thing Hetrick appreciates is the consistency of his restaurant business. "The Cherokee people have always supported me," said the Army veteran who is known to prepare meals free of charge for the needy, and who, in conjunction with a local church, offers a full Thanksgiving Dinner for the public at no charge each year.
"This town used to be wide open when I started out. People partied almost every night and our late-night food business was great after the bars closed," explained Hetrick. "But, not any more. At 11 or 12 (p.m.) the streets are empty. When they started to crack down on drinking and driving, that did it. I close now about 8 p.m. most nights."
Besides his regular, local customers, Hetrick has had the famous and infamous stop by to eat while cruising U.S. Highway 59 that runs north and south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.
In the past there have been astronauts, professional musicians, professional cowboys, state and national politicians, movie actors, foreign dignitaries, outstanding journalists, outlaw bikers, and countless out-of-state visitors who see his cafe sign on U.S. Highway 59 and stop for a bite to eat. The Houston, Texas astronaut, who has been to the Space Station, stopped a few years ago with some motorcycling buddies because his last name is Carey.
Hetrick, the chief cook, works about 14 hours a day Monday through Saturday, arriving about 4:30 a.m. when he opens, and closing about 8 p.m. each night, depending upon the traffic. The cafe is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, for another eight-hour shift.
"Above all, we appreciate Cherokee and the people here for patronizing us," concluded Hetrick, whose life today merrily revolves around his family, church, and business."We've been blessed."