Hamburger Inn makeover is mindful of history


January 13, 2014

A Delaware icon is getting a makeover – one that is mindful of its history.

And after more 80 years in business, the Hamburger Inn has a bright future, said owner Bill Michailidis.

“There is a real legacy here and we want to preserve that legacy,” he said. “You can see a cross-section of Delaware here.”

Michailidis purchased the restaurant in 2010 after years in the restaurant industry. Since then, he has been slowly restoring the outside of the Hamburger Inn to match the facade seen in pictures from the 1940s. Inside, he’s maintained menu items such as the cinnamon rolls and hamburger buns – both made in-house with the recipes passed down through the restaurant’s history – and added more modern items to entice new guests.

Recently, he closed the restaurant for several days to remodel the interior with new appliances, fresh paint and updated bathrooms. But the counter tops that have long been a part of the restaurant were kept in place. It reopened to customers Jan. 5.

He said maintaining that link to history is not just about running a long-standing business.

“I really care about the community and the people,” he said. “It is those customers that give us a reason to be here every day.”

Michailidis has owned other restaurants before – he came out of retirement to purchase the Hamburger Inn – and he said this business stands out from his previous ventures.

“The difference between this restaurant and every other restaurant I’ve owned is it has made me understand that there are people who’ve been coming here for 80 years and you’ve got to respect that,” he said.

Customers who come in tell him stories of the history, much of it their own history with the restaurant.

For one family, the restaurant history is their history.

“I started working there when I was 12 years old,” said Keith Hudson. “I was born and raised there, literally. … I’m about the only one left that can tell you most of the stories.”

Hudson, now in his late 70s, said he was even younger than that when he was washing dishes in for his parents’ restaurant, standing on cans and boxes just to reach the sink.

Back then, when the restaurant was owned by Glenn and Bonnie Hudson after it opened in 1932, the burgers cost a nickel and the restaurant had 12 stools and one long counter.

“We had an ashtray in there that said, ‘Seats 12,000, 12 at a time,’” he said.

Chili was the popular item. French fries were hand cut. The meat for the burgers was ground in-house, scooped out with an ice cream scoop and flattened into patties on the grill. Every item on the menu was fresh and homemade, except for the fish, which was brought in frozen. The ovens worked overtime to produce the famed doughnuts and pies.

“Those stools were always full,” he said.

“It was that way even as it grew,” said Hudson’s daughter Peggy Wood.

In the 1950s, Hudson’s father bought the offices next door and expanded the small restaurant to 36 stools.

“And that’s when it became, ‘36,000, 36 at a time,’” he said.

With each piece of history Hudson told, Wood noted her fathers eyes lit up.

“There’s a lot of history,” he said.

“You’ve got people going in their all their lives,” Wood said.

When his parents retired, Hudson’s brother Glenn Hudson Jr. took over the business, who then sold it to two of the restaurant’s long-employed waitresses in the 1970s.

It’s history like this that Michailidis has worked to collect since he purchased the restaurant a few years ago. From pictures to stories, he’s reached out to customers.

More often, customers have volunteered their stories and information.

As he’s worked to both preserve and modernize the restaurant, Michailidis said the community has been supportive. He said he’s very mindful of the traditions of local products and fresh made food, so he’s stuck with it by sourcing as much of the ingredients locally as he can and continuing to bake in-house.

He’s introduced new soups to the menu, but makes them from scratch as would have been done when the restaurant opened. And he continues to make the chili for which the restaurant was known in Hudson’s childhood.

Michailidis said while prices have increased – the burger no longer costs a nickel – he has made any price adjustments on the menu as minimal as possible while making sure he can use quality ingredients and pay his employees well.

“A diner is a place where a family can afford to bring their whole family,” he said. “I really care about the community and the people. It is those customers that give us a reason to be here every day.

As Wood and Hudson looked at their collection of memorabilia and told stories of the restaurant’s early years, they came to the same conclusion.

“It was the gathering place,” Wood said.

Hudson nodded as his daughter spoke.

“It has a smell all of its own,” he said. “When you came out of that place, you know where you’ve been.”

“I just think it’s an iconic place,” Wood said. “That’s what it’s about. That’s why people go there.”