The phone seems to ring constantly. Hamburger patties with onions mashed in are sizzling on the grill. Some diners occupy one of the seven red swivel stools, while others stand near the entrance waiting on their orders. The chat parking lot has a new Mercedes sitting next to a rusting pickup. Cash — the only way to pay — changes hands at the order counter.
It’s just another day at the office for Sandy and Tim Henry, their daughter, Jennifer Compton, and Tim’s sister, Teresa Johnson, at Bill’s Jumbo Burgers. The routine has been much the same for the past 59 years.
The restaurant was founded by Annie and Bill Henry in 1960 on the corner of Admiral Boulevard and Xanthus Avenue in a Pepto Bismol-pink former gas station. It burned in 1964, and the Henrys replaced it with a former Van’s Hamburger building they moved from 15th Street and Lewis Avenue.
“It was built in 1929 in Texas and shipped as it is by railroad. All you had to do was have a concrete slab and hook up the utilities. It’s solid. A tornado couldn’t take it,” Teresa Johnson said in a reference to the recent weather.
“I don’t think a tornado could lift it,” added Tim Henry, who said he once broke four drill bits trying to drill a hole in the ceiling.
The roof, by the way, is curved, and there is a reason for that.
“It didn’t have air-conditioning at first, and the curves had vents that helped pull out the heat and steam,” Johnson said. “Then we had a water cooler for a long time.”
Bill’s Jumbo Burgers barely survived the construction of Interstate 244 just yards away in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Another survivor was Thelma’s Bar, located a few feet east of Bill’s. It was among Tulsa’s oldest bars until it closed about a year ago.
“We knew Thelma,” Teresa said. “She was a fiery red-headed lady, and she had a nice neighborhood bar for many years. In recent years, it attracted a not-so-good crowd. I would like to see a coffee shop or something like that go in there as close as we are to Kendall-Whittier.”
Johnson said little has changed at Bill’s Jumbo since she and Tim took over from their parents in 1993.
“It was 1993, but we had been working here since we were very young,” Johnson said. “We’ve added chili fries, chili tots, a few things like that, but it’s mostly the same.”
Johnson said she is responsible for having jalapeno slices as an optional add-on when she was younger despite her father’s resistance.
“I told Dad the customers wanted them, and he said he wasn’t going to put jalapenos on his burgers,” she said. “I had customers vote on it, and it got an overwhelming response. Dad said he still wasn’t doing it.
“So I told him I would buy the jalapenos and sell them myself and keep the profit. I charged 25 cents for a little cup, and when he noticed I was making a little money on them, he decided it was a good idea after all.”
The Henry family, by the way, is steeped in the burger business. Bill Henry’s brother, Hank Henry, founded Hank’s Hamburgers in 1949. Though not in the family anymore, it still operates at 8933 E. Admiral Place.
They say to go big or go home. On a visit to Bill’s Jumbo Hamburgers, we went medium and went home, and it was plenty big enough. Our brown paper bag with shiny grease spots was filled with two Big Red burgers, an order of hand-cut fries and a large bowl of chili with beans.
Burgers range from one-third pound without cheese for $4.20 to a two-pounder with cheese for $15.50. The Big Reds were two-thirds of a pound. We had one with tomato, lettuce, pickles and mayo ($6.05) and one with tomato, lettuce, pickles, cheese and mustard ($6.55). We had onions cooked in on both.
These had the old-fashioned flavor typical of most of the old-time hamburger stands. In other words, the way burgers are supposed to taste. Having onions cooked into the patties lended a subtle sweetness to the flavor.
The medium-cut fries were excellent. The chili with beans was thick with ground beef and had a mellow flavor.
It’s good to remember that Bill’s is cash only and often runs out of food before its 3 p.m. closing time.
The most direct ways to get there are to turn east off Utica Avenue on First Street and continue about three blocks, or go north on Xanthus Avenue off Third Street.
Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.