Written by Terrell Lester, Tulsa World Newspaper
Ron Baber has turned a 10-stool hamburger joint into an empire.
Ron's Hamburgers and Chili serves up what just might be Tulsa's very best old-fashioned hamburgers.
That is quite a mouthful, considering the fact that Tulsa boasts some of the best burgers known to mankind.
But Ron's speciality are those burgers that sizzle on a flat grill with buns that drip of grease. They are not high on the list of the cholesterol-counting crowd.
From the original Ron's at 3239 E. 15th St., seven more family-owned burger places have sprung up. Ron operates his flagship eatery, and his wife, Betty, runs the one downtown in the Darby Lane Inn, 16 W. Sixth St., where she also serves a fine breakfast. The other six, in Tulsa, Broken Arrow and Stillwater, belong to their children. And daughter Rhonda, who helps Ron on 15th Street, is waiting to step into a place of her own.
"All of them make three times more money than I do -- probably four times. That's the only bad part of the story," the 61-year-old Ron, a native of Sapulpa, says with a laugh.
But Ron is happy, even ecstatic, with the success of his offspring. It means financial security for each: Mark, Gene, Gary, Michael, Terry and Rhonda.
It all started in 1975 when Ron quit a career position with Crane Carrier Corp. of Tulsa.
"I'd always loved to cook," he says. "When I was young, when other guys were buying "Playboy,' I was buying "Gourmet' magazine. "I wanted to own a steakhouse or a barbecue place. Then after I counted my money, I settled for a 10-stool hamburger place." The narrow, little wooden building just west of Harvard Avenue was for sale. After some 25 years, Ed Ryan wanted to sell Ryan's Grill.
"My parents almost had a heart attack," Ron says, looking back. "At Crane, I had a month's vacation, and I was a department head, and I had been there 18 years. My parents thought, "This guy is insane. We're going to have support his five children when he goes broke in this hamburger stand.'"
Betty and the children helped Ron launch his burger joint. The youngsters started out making 65 cents an hour.
"Then after that first week, we did so bad that I cut their pay to 35 cents an hour," Ron said. "They were all so mad they threatened not to come back to work."
They not only returned, but they remained to help their father build an empire.
The keys have been many. First, there's the Magic Lid Theory. Ron insists that a lid be placed over the hamburger patty and bun so that the bun soaks up the grease and steam.
"We like to serve 'em so hot that you can't pick 'em up when you first get 'em," he says.
Then there's the sausage that Ron adds to his beef to make the popular sausage cheeseburger. "It's our biggest seller," he says. And the topper is Ron's chili. "That's what really made us," he says. "If we didn't have our chili, we'd be in trouble." Ron took Ryan's original chili recipe and added his own seasoning and pork and came up with what he considers the piece de resistance of his menu.
But for many, the burger is still king of this empire. "I didn't know if we were going to make it or not at first," Ron says. "But I know it never would have worked without Betty."
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