Anyone who’s spent much time in Pullman likely remembers Cougar Country and their signature burgers, baskets, and to-die-for fry sauce. Now, those items and more are available in a new take-out restaurant in the WSU Pullman Compton Union Building.
The satellite cafe, named Cougar Country Underground, opened its doors to students, staff, and visitors last November.
“I’m excited to be back on campus,” says owner Michael Wagoner (’78 Ed.) who previously ran Zoe’s Underground Coffee and Kitchen in the basement of the K-House from 2008 to 2014. “It was the best time of my life with Zoe’s and all the students.”
Wagoner bought the original Cougar Country Drive-In when it went up for sale in 2019.
With the addition of Cougar Country Underground, he continues the college town’s long love affair with hamburgers and other fast food.
You might say the attraction began on May 15, 1948, when Chuck’s Drive-In Restaurant opened on the south end of Pullman, offering residents their first taste of car-hopped burgers, shakes, and fries. By 1954, two more were in business: Smoothies, a drive-in ice cream store, and the celebrated Burgerville, which sat in a tiny building off Davis Way just west of the city.
These early car-side eateries were part of a post-war obsession with drive-in fare that hit its height of popularity during the 1950s and ’60s. According to a Bunchgrass Historian essay by Robert E. King, at that time, a regular hamburger at Burgerville went for 35 cents. A generous helping of fries and a shake were another 30 cents each, bringing the meal to just under a dollar. Part of the charm was offering customers the area’s first drive-up window where they could order through a speaker.
By 1958, Pullman had welcomed its first chain restaurant, an A&W Root Beer Drive-In. A few years later in 1961, the franchise Arctic Circle Drive-In arrived. Another decade passed before Taco Time came to town in 1970, followed by the Cougar Country Drive-In in 1973.
These early chain and mom-and-pop drive-ins kept Pullman and WSU students happily supplied with burgers, chicken baskets, and other short orders until the next generation of drive-through restaurants debuted with the opening of Pullman’s first McDonald’s in 1986. It was soon followed by Arby’s, Burger King, and Dairy Queen.
Throughout the years, however, Cougar Country has remained a community favorite. For their fortieth anniversary in 2013, the restaurant celebrated by rolling their menu prices back to those first charged in 1973.
Wagoner, who began eating Cougar Country burgers during his student days at WSU, promises to offer CUB visitors the same overall menu along with a few new items such as biscuit and potato breakfast bowls and Zoe’s coffee.
And for those who prefer a more plant-based option, Wagoner suggests their new black bean burger or perhaps the Butch Beyond Burger, affectionately dubbed the BBB.
(Special thanks Whitman County Historical Society)
Had a favorite food spot when at WSU? Let us know!