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Imagine throwing a birthday party and having so many people show up that there's a line to get in. That's what happens when you're the Double Front Café.

"It's gotta be the chicken," said Jason Herndon, when asked how the family-owned downtown eatery has remained open for 49 years. "It's been the same. We haven't changed a thing."

On Tuesday, the landmark Missoula establishment will celebrate almost five decades in business under the management of three generations of Herndons by offering half-priced chicken dinners all day. It's been years since the Double Front Café celebrated its anniversary, but if the past repeats itself, Herndon wonders if there will be enough fried fowl to go around.

Dubbed the Double Front because of its entrances on both Alder and Railroad streets, the business began as a bar and café in 1936. Gene and Caddy Herndon purchased the business in 1960 from the estate of George Austin, who died in an automobile accident, and the couple opened for business a year later.

Gene, a railroader and entrepreneur, didn't know a thing about chicken back then, he said in a 1980 Missoulian interview. His employees taught him the finer points of poultry preparation. After the couple purchased the business, the basic recipe was only slightly modified to create the crispy chicken still enjoyed by customers.

Double Front's slogan back then was "the working man's supper club."

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Son Lex began working there at age 13. It was at the Double Front Café that he eventually met his wife, Joyce, a waitress.

"This was mom's favorite place to eat and it was her first job," said Lex and Joyce's son, Jason, who now manages the business.

The couple married in 1973 and purchased the business 21 years later after Lex retired from the Missoula police force.

A week before Christmas in 1994, a grease fire in one of the fryers caused extensive damage to the building. The restaurant closed for exactly a year and five days while the Herndons rebuilt and remodeled the building.

"If the business had been struggling then, we would've collected the insurance money and sold the land," Jason said. "But it's been a mainstay here in Missoula for so long. It's a thriving endeavor."

Just like his father, Jason began working at Double Front as a teenager.

"I asked to work down here earlier than I was allowed to," he said.

Jason worked as part of a golf grounds crew, land surveyor and five years with Missoula Emergency Services. Yet, he always continued to help out at his parents' restaurant part time. Today he manages the establishment fulltime and imagines that one day he'll eventually assume the business.

"I see all the potential this place offers," he said. "It continues to thrive."

***

March 30 is not the Double Front's actual birthday. In the past, the café celebrated its birthday on Gene's birthday, Feb. 28.

It's been several years since Double Front has done anything like this, but the family decided it was time to revive the anniversary tradition, Jason said.

On an average Friday in the summer - its busiest season - the cafe will serve around 375 dinners.

On Tuesday, Jason expects to serve more than 1,300 dinners. It was a two-hour wait for a table at the last birthday celebration, Jason said. Chicken will be the only choice on the menu Tuesday, and all nine deep-fat fryers will be in use until 11 p.m. or later, depending on customer demand.

"We look at being here another 50 years," he said.

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