Written by Scott Cherry, Tulsa World Newspaper
It was a dream come true for Ron Baber when he opened his tiny hamburger and chili restaurant 25 years ago.
Baber had worked 18 years for Crane Carrier when he checked out a Sunday newspaper ad to buy a hamburger stand on 15th Street just west of Harvard Avenue.
"I had built up $10,000 in a retirement plan, and it was enough to put a down payment on this little place," Baber said recently, sitting on one of the 10 stools in the original Ron's Hamburgers & Chili. "I always loved to cook and always wanted my own place. When other guys were buying Playboy, I was buying Gourmet."
He said he worked free at Al Saab's steakhouse to learn to cook commercially, and although he first dreamed of opening a steakhouse or barbecue place, he was happy to settle for hamburgers and chili.
Ron's quickly became a popular lunch spot for workers in all walks of life. Baber counts Gailard Sartain, Gary Busey, Leon Russell and Caroline Kennedy among the celebrities who have visited his restaurant over the years.
"Gailard used to call me once in a while when he was in Hollywood," said Baber. "He recently brought me three signed Mayfest posters he designed for this year's festival."
Baber and wife Betty dabbled in expansion a few times -- she ran a Ron's in the old Darby Lane Moter Hotel downtown, and they opened one at 21st Street and Garnett Road -- but it wasn't until their children grew up and became involved in the restaurants that things really took off.
"The one on 21st Street wasn't doing well, and we turned it over to our son Michael," said Baber. "He really turned it around. If he hadn't there might never have been any more Ron's."
Today there are 18 in Oklahoma and Texas, an equal number family owned and franchises.
"All of the kids went to college and most of them started in other careers, but they all have come back and opened their own Ron's restaurants," said Baber.
In addition to Michael, here's the family lineup:
Gene, 51st Street and Sheridan Road in the Farm; Mark, 71st Street and Mingo Road; Gary, 81st Street and Harvard Avenue, and Stillwater; Rhonda, Owasso; and Terry, Broken Arrow.
Since Ron and Betty retired a couple of years ago, longtime employee Roberta Steele has been operating the 15th Street store. A waitress, Shirley Horton, has been with the Babers all 25 years and now works in the Owasso restaurant.
In addition to the old-fashioned hamburgers, just greasy enough to provide good flavor, and the tasty homemade chili, two parts beef to one part pork ("The way my mother made meat loaf," said Ron), the restaurant is known for its sausage cheeseburger, Spanish fries and Ron's Special burger.
"Betty bought some sausage one day to take home for breakfast, and we left it in the restaurant by mistake," said Baber. "So when we came back on Monday, we came up with a way to use it, and the sausage cheeseburger became our No. 1 specialty burger."
Ron's Special is a jumbo cheeseburger with Cure 81 ham and real bacon bits. Spanish fries, with peppers and onions, is the only dish Baber said he ever stole from another restaurant.
"But I waited until they went out of business," he said.
Baber said he and Betty are enjoying retirement. They recently took their first cruise -- a trip to Alaska -- and went to Memphis, Tenn., to attend Jerry Lee Lewis' 65th birthday celebration.
"Both were a blast," he said. "I'm happy to let the kids do most of the business now. The way they're going, I'm not smart enough to work for them. Heck, 10 stools is the most I've ever cooked for anyway."
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