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EMERALD — People have made the drive to Merle's Food and Drink for 60 years. But come July 27, the traffic will be halted.

That's right.

Sixty years after Merle and Jo Wilken opened the country-themed bar and restaurant on West O Street, Merle's will close its doors.

"It's over," said Gail Meredith, a bartender and waitress at the establishment since 1989. "It's hard to have that sink in."

The restaurant best known for its small-town environment, great food and cheap beer has made a lasting impact on its customers.

More than 350 people commented on owner Ben Lynch's Facebook post announcing the restaurant was closing.

For Lynch and Meredith, however, the plans to close Merle's have brought up memories of years past, growing up and family.

To understand the emotions, you have to know the history.

Lynch's parents, Dan and Liz, bought the bar from the Wilkens in 1976. Dan Lynch got to know Merle Wilken while stopping with deliveries at Merle's while running his beer route.

The business became a staple in the Lynch household.

Ben started working at Merle's in 1990. He was 12 when he began busing tables and doing dishes to help out his parents.

Meredith, meanwhile, has been a fixture behind the bar.

"She's been the face of Merle's for over 30 years," Ben Lynch said.

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Meredith's journey to the small-town bar is a little different.

Meredith, along with her husband, would often stop at the bar on their way to or from Lincoln.

She hit it off with Liz and Dan Lynch, and one day, she got a call from Liz saying one of her workers didn't want to work Nebraska football Saturdays. Would she be interested in filling in?

Meredith jumped at the opportunity and hasn't looked back for 30 years.

"I had a baby when I came here, I had breast cancer when I was here," Meredith said. "This place has been there through it all."

That has been the theme for a lot of Merle's customers and employees over the years.

Merle's hosted a karaoke night Friday and customers, old and new, stopped in to soak in the atmosphere. Some made comments about making it a point to come out to the restaurant before it closes.

The restaurant drew regulars to the small town just west of Lincoln but also visitors to nearby Pawnee Lake and anyone looking to drift off Interstate 80 to catch the scenery of U.S. 6.

For Ben, it has been emotional to see all the loyal customers.

But he takes solace knowing he poured his heart into the place with deep family roots.

Ben bought the business in 2012, and said his dad has been a rock throughout the decision-making process to close the bar.

"He had written me this letter," Ben said. "It said that 'Whenever I was ready to be done, I fully support you.' I just happened to find it when I was looking through some things the other day. It was a good reminder that he always had my back."

So the bar and restaurant known for its prime rib, burgers and curly fries is on its way out. But for its regulars, the memories are not going anywhere.

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