Cleburne’s bite-sized Burger Bar big on character

Posted Friday, Sep. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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When the tiny flat-top grill that is believed to be 100 years old is really smoking, it can turn out 120 burgers in a day.

That’s a second or so’s worth of servings on the McDonald’s meter, but it’s almost one hamburger per square foot in the miniscule 12-foot-by-12-foot Burger Bar.

“And that’s pushing it,” laughs 24-year-old Katy Grantges, the grill-master who keeps close company with her cousin Jordan Smithwick on the cramped working side of a narrow four-stool counter where Cleburne burger buffs of all stripes and ages have been rubbing elbows for 64 years.

A third set of owners, Mike and Cathy Elmore, Grantges’ parents, have owned the Burger Bar since 2006 when a bit of divine intervention kept the ancient flat-top cooking.

The couple were at church and their pastor told them the Burger Bar was shutting down.

Mike Elmore, 64, had just retired from Bell Helicopter and he was looking for something to do, so he dived into the burger business.

It wasn’t that big a leap. He had been eating at the Burger Bar since the 1950s, so he was familiar with the tiny brick building that originated as a livery stable and has also seen duty as a car dealership and taxi dispatch office.

“My grandparents would bring me in and we would get seven burgers for $1. In high school, I used to run over here for a burger,” Mike Elmore said.

Except for the shift in owners and the workers over the decades, nothing much has really changed at the Burger Bar, assures Mike Homesley, a 78-year-old insurance man, who is the tiny stand’s undisputed “No. 1 customer.”

He, too, used to run over from school. But he sneaked a cigarette under the bridge before going back to class.

Homesley figures he’s eaten thousands of cheeseburgers since the Burger Bar opened in 1949. He’s also still sneaking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes a day.

“Me and the Burger Bar, we haven’t changed much,” he laughed.

“It’s a pretty good hamburger. I still go probably an average of three times a week for a cheeseburger, half order of fries and a cold drink,” said Homesley.

“Old-school greasy hamburger”

That sort of regularity is a hallmark of the Burger Bar.

“Many of our customers have eaten here their whole lives, and we know what they want when the pull in. They always get the same thing,” Mike Elmore said.

One guy doesn’t even get out of his truck to order.

“He holds up one or two fingers,” said Cathy Elmore, a retired teacher. “You wave to him and he comes in and pays.”

On a recent day at 10 a.m., Sharon Hawkins, a night shift worker, was having her standard order: hamburger, no pickles, french fries with grilled onions. Oh, and lots of Tabasco sauce.

She’s been a regular since 1969 and, for years she would ride her bicycle 20 miles round-trip from Joshua for a Burger Bar fix.

“You don’t get these kind of burgers anymore,” she said.

What kind of burgers are they?

“It’s an old-school greasy hamburger on a grilled bun with mustard. We don’t do goat cheese. We will add avocado and jalapenos. We’ll even do mayonnaise if you ask for it,” Mike Elmore said.

The beef patties aren’t hand-formed, smashed or ground from an exotic blend, either. The place is so small that the front of the sink is within inches of the side of the refrigerator. Which requires using frozen patties and frozen french fries.

“We can’t do dishes; we have to take everything home and then bring it all back every morning. We bring in all the supplies; when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Mike Elmore, who manned the grill himself until a couple of years ago when Grantges, who had been working there since high school, took over.

Like her sister, Grantges met her husband while working at the Burger Bar, and she has no plans for stepping away from the grill.

“It’s fun. People are happy in here,” she said.

The lunch rush

The lunch rush starts at 11 a.m., which is when Grantges starts keeping four patties on the grill to try and stay ahead of the crowd.

Linger over lunch or work in the Burger Bar and dogs will follow your scent home. Smithwick confessed that it takes a triple shot of detergent to get that burger, bacon and grilled onions aroma out of her clothes.

“Don’t tell my mother,” she said.

The Burger Bar doesn’t qualify as fast food, because, well, it’s sort of slow.

“You can only cook so many at a time. People wait 45 minutes for a burger. I’ve seen them lined up to the end of the block,” Mike Elmore said.

“We actually had 20 people in here once,” he said, noting that about the only thing that will empty the place is when a judge or highway patrolman pulls up a stool.

“This place will clear out. Everybody with a collar (ankle monitor) on their foot are gone,” Mike Elmore said.

But for everybody else, the Burger Bar is the town’s unofficial telegraph.

“We used to think the ladies would go to the beauty parlor to keep up with news. But in Cleburne you come to the Burger Bar,” Cathy Elmore said.

With diners eating within inches of each other, Grantges said the conversations can get interesting, but talking politics is discouraged.

“We had two old men pull guns on each other talking about presidential politics. Both of them were carrying. They resolved it outside and then laughed and went home,” Mike Elmore said.

The bite-sized joint’s appeal straddles all the social fences.

“You might be sitting beside a lawyer, a homeless person or multimillionaire — you never know,” Mike Elmore said.

Repeat customers

The company that made the flat-top grill went out of business 50 years ago, so it takes some scavenging to keep it going. No one knows where the grill served before landing at the Burger Bar.

The previous owner passed on an important piece of advice about the well-seasoned grill: Don’t ever clean it.

“He sand-blasted it once. He said he caught flak for over a year because the burgers didn’t taste the same,” Mike Elmore said. “We never put soap on it.”

Another Burger Bar throwback won’t be changing, either. The faded and rusted metal sign featuring a bun, an unadorned patty and a bottle of Coca-Cola is a magnet for drivers at the stoplight a block away on South Main Street.

“I’ve been offered a lot of money for it. A guy from Detroit offered me somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 if I delivered it to Detroit. That gets us more business than anything. When people see that sign, they say they need to eat over here,” Mike Elmore said.

Which happens like clockwork for Louis Homesley.

“Sometimes I might go two days between burgers, but not much longer.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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