Written by Martin Mitchell, Tulsa World Newspaper
For five years, Gary Baber shuffled cards on the felt-covered blackjack tables of Las Vegas. He dealt his fair share of hearts while in `The City of Lights,` but Gary's heart was always in Tulsa, behind the grill of his father's diner.
Luck of the draw brought Gary back to Tulsa, where the 32-year-old now displays the same eloquence and skill used on the blackjack tables to shuffle burgers and buns at Ron's Hamburgers and Chili, 3239 E. 15th St.
Gary's dad, Ron Baber, opened the diner 20 years ago. The once-small venture has now evolved into a family chain of sorts, with Ron's wife, Betty, five sons and daughter all participating in day-to-day operations of five locations, with another scheduled to open later this month. Gary Baber said he's currently scouting a possible location in Stillwater.
`That's strange, isn't it?` said Ron while explaining the makeup of his tight-knit family in an era where jobs have a way of pulling a family in separate directions rather than bringing them closer together. `The kids all get along good. The whole family is sticking together.`
Ron and his wife own and operate the location on 15th Street and the diner at 416 W. Sixth St. His sons own and operate the locations at 21st Street and Garnett Road, 71st Street and Mingo Road, and at 51st Street and Sheridan Road in the Farm Shopping Center. A location near 52nd Street and Peoria Avenue is scheduled to open later this month.
`I never even dreamed there would be a second location,` said Ron, who laughed when he recalled the countless times customers would line up outside the small 15th Street location.
The tiny diner was constructed in the early 1930s, when trolley lines went no further east than Lewis Avenue and its location was considered the outskirts of town.
The building's interior and exterior have undergone little change during the past six decades. The same small gas stove in back, used by the building's original tenants, is still fired up to heat Ron's chili, a perfected recipe consisting of half beef, half pork that Ron proudly pointed out has gained a national reputation. The huge stainless steel pot dwarfs the small stove as it rests atop the four burners, all of which are needed to heat the 60 pounds of chili. The 7-foot-or-so tower -- Ron has never taken an exact measurement -- perched on the roof has for years served as a beacon for burger connoisseurs. The tower, once used to cool the gigantic eight-ton air conditioning unit, now pushes cool air from a newer, more efficient unit. Ron still keeps the archaic unit perched in the corner of the diner. Its removal would no doubt add valuable elbow space to the cozy interior, which features only 10 stools along the aged rosy-red countertop. Asked if the steel monument remains for nostalgic or sentimental reasons, Ron simply laughed and replied, `How would you like to move this thing? I think they must have built the building around it!`
Although the other Ron's locations have more space, customers from all areas of Tulsa still frequent the small 15th Street diner. Ron ventured to guess that customers prefer the comfortable atmosphere, or that many patrons `just think that this grill cooks better than the others,` he said, patting the edge of the steel griddle that has cooked countless burgers.
Ron admitted he is more than a little protective over the preparation of his hamburgers. Pulling a lid out from beneath the counter, Ron explained how he places the `magic lid` over each beef patty after flipping it to keep the steam -- and the flavor -- from escaping. While the faded menu hanging above the counter may boast of a double hamburger, customers will never see a stacked patty within Ron's confines. In his opinion, burgers were never intended to be stacked. Positioning two patties on top of each other just doesn't seem natural to someone who has been in the business as long as Ron, who pointed out that the two patties in his doubles are combined into one sizable mound.
`I just don't think a stacked hamburger tastes good,` he said with avid conviction. `You have to open your mouth so wide you can't enjoy it.` And if anyone in Tulsa understands the exact science of hamburger preparation, it's Ron Baber.
`When I first started this business I wasn't so fat,` he jokingly said, rubbing his stomach. `I don't know if it's my cooking or just the grease coming off the grill.`
Whatever the reason, Ron's loyal customers no doubt hope that the magic he performs behind his grill doesn't end anytime soon.
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