Charley Bell, founder and owner of Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, has died, according to the Granbury Road joint’s Facebook page.
“He has been feeding Fort Worth’s hungry for over 25 years now,” the post says. His dominant presence will surely be missed and we would want nothing more than to hear his one of a kind voice thanking his patrons for coming in.”
Charley’s was a perennial , contender in DFW.com’s semi-annual burger battles, and made it to the final four in the 2011 battle. Charley’s eventually got knocked out — after long arguments among the judges, outdoors during that summer’s record-breaking heat — by Chop House Burgers in Arlington.
But Charley’s won the readers’ bracket that year, and I profiled Bell in one of my first DFW.com assignments. But I had been a fan since the ’90s, when I lived in southwest Fort Worth and would make regular trips to the shack-like Charley’s just to get the Project X burger, a scorcher of a cheeseburger featuring a Tabasco-soaked patty topped with jalapeños.
Business started slowly at Charley's in January 1992 — so slowly that Bell kept his job as a truck driver, working at the restaurant when he could.
But in August of that year, Star-Telegram Eats Beat columnist Bud Kennedy told his readers about “a new diner in Fort Worth's Westcliff neighborhood [that] promises old-fashioned hamburgers.” That same day, the small shack was mobbed, and a new local favorite was born.
“I couldn't run to the store fast enough,” Bell said in 2011. “I didn't think it was going to do all that well. But from there, it just took off.”
Bell said back then that he often saw the same diners every week: “You see 'em pull up, you know what to throw on the grill, you know what they're gonna get. I've had people call up and say: 'Well, this is Martha. I'll be there in 15 minutes.' So we knew what to do, and she knew how much money to bring, right down to the nickel.”
Charley's has a vintage burger stand exterior in a building that has been on Old Granbury Road since 1953. It was a converted mobile home, and the kitchen still stands in an 8-by-20 trailer. Aside from a small dining area and some outside picnic tables, Charley's hasn't changed much since it opened in 1992.
In 1999, things were going so well at the original location that Bell opened another Charley's on the Weatherford Traffic Circle. But months after it opened, Bell's second son, Matthew, was killed in a traffic accident in Dallas. Bell said in 2011 that it knocked the wind out of him. He became depressed, gaining so much weight that he could hardly walk, leaving the operation of the restaurants to his staff.
A third Charley's opened in 2002 on Montgomery Street, but after it opened, the Granbury Road store started struggling; nearby road construction caused business to drop to nearly nothing. Both the additional locations are closed now, but Bell said in 2011 that if it hadn’t been for the two additional stores, the Granbury Road one wouldn’t have survived.
He gave a lot of credit to Patrick Lighthart for keeping the Granbury shop running during all the problem years. In February of 2011, Bell decided to become much more active in running the original location again.
"My friends, my family, everybody had been telling me for years, 'Without you, there isn't a store,'" Bell says. "My son [says] 'Y'know, it's just a lot smoother with you there.' ”
The store will carry on without him. “Charley’s wishes were that the restaurant keep cooking up its signature deliciousness for future generations to enjoy,”: the Facebook post says. “Keep coming by for your favorite meal and don’t hesitate to share your favorite memory of Charley.”
Here’s one, from the 2011 profile (which is where much of the above information came from):
"I get a lot of people saying, 'Well, you oughtta do this, you oughtta do that,'" says Bell, who is happy to have suggestions. "But I like all my burgers, or we wouldn't make 'em."