An icon of Fort Wayne eateries sits in a little art deco building built previous to World War II just across from the U.S. Northern Indiana District Federal Courthouse - Powers Hamburgers (see map). This little hamburger shop was once part of a small regional empire of hamburger joints that rivaled White Castle in their style, size and taste. I was told by a sales person at Sweetwater Sound that I had to try Powers Hamburgers at least once. On a recent visit earlier this summer to Fort Wayne, I stopped in for a burger (or two) for lunch.
Back in the years before World War II, White Castle out of Kansas led the charge of small hamburger shops that popped up over the nation's landscape featuring small burgers cooked - or steamed - on flat grills. This phenomenon also gave rise to the White Manna (or Mana) burger shops on the East coast. In Dearborn, MI, four brothers who grew up in Northeastern Indiana - Leo, Clell, Harold (aka Jim) and Dale Powers - built a hamburger shop from the ground up on their own. Their little stand - Powers Hamburgers - was a hit for the workers and their families at nearby auto plants. In 1938 - three years after the opening of the first Powers Hamburgers stand - Dale Powers had moved to Port Huron to open a second location. Soon thereafter, Dale opened locations in Grand Rapids.
Leo Powers had decided to move back to Northeast Indiana and he opened the Powers Hamburger location near the downtown area of Fort Wayne in 1940. A second location was opened in an industrial area in 1947. At the height of their popularity, between 15 to 20 Powers Hamburgers stands were in business in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
In 1980, Leo Powers passed the business along to his son, Rolin. Rolin opened a third Fort Wayne location in 1983, but it didn't prove to be as successful as the other two and it closed in 1989. Along about that time, Rolin Powers was diagnosed with cancer and he died about a year later. His sister, Marilyn Penick, took of the two remaining Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne and ran them until she sold them to 28-year-old Michael Hall in 1999. Hall had been the accountant for Penick and Powers Hamburgers and wanted to learn the business from the inside out. Penick liked him so much that she encouraged him to buy the business from her - the only non-Powers family member to own a Powers location.
After Hall took over, he closed the second location in Fort Wayne in 2004, but continues to keep the tradition alive in the original Fort Wayne location. Other than some structural improvements and new signage for the building, some tweaks to the menu (pictured right), and the hours (they used to be open every day, 24 hours - now they're open through the week at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. on Saturdays; and close at 10 p.m. Monday thru Wednesday, and at midnight Thursday thru Saturday), Hall has kept everything pretty much the same.
Powers Hamburgers weathered a small storm about four years ago when plans to build a complex of mixed-use buildings comprised of a new baseball stadium, condos and hotels, as well as a convention center threatened the building. Initial plans had the block on which Powers sits to be an open lot to be used for future development. But a campaign by local Fort Wayne residents made city planners back off on their idea saving the last and only Powers Hamburgers stand in existence.
There's a parking lot next to Powers Hamburgers that is probably too large for the number of seats they have in the place. The small counter wraps around and seats about a dozen people. There's a small booth in the back next to a back kitchen/prep area. The grill is located on the north side of the building that looks out onto the corner of W. Brackenridge and S. Harrison streets.
Knowing that it is usually busy during the lunch rush hour, I waited until the middle of the afternoon before I stopped into Powers Hamburgers to try a burger. I took a seat at the south end of the counter, getting a good glimpse of what goes on behind the counter. The menu is located on the wall above and behind the counter. In addition to their "slider" burgers, Powers also serves breakfast until 10:30 including eggs, omelette's, egg sandwiches and something called the "garbage plate" that has eggs, hash browns, meat and cheese added to it. They also have coney dogs, chili, and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches on the menu. But most of the people are going for the burgers.
I ordered two with grilled onions. The burgers are hand-pattied and made to order - at least mine was. It could be when they get into a rush they just make a bunch of them up as a lot of people buy them by the sackful - just as they do at White Castle. (And, good God, don't ever mention White Castle in Powers Hamburgers!) In fact, while I was there a couple people came in and bought eight or ten at a time to go.
The burgers are smashed into the grill with a spatula and they cook very fast. They serve the burgers on Aunt Millie's buns - actually they're more like dinner rolls. Aunt Millie's main bakery and corporate offices are not far from Powers Hamburgers. And they do make damn fine rolls and buns.
The burgers were topped with copious amounts of grilled onions which kind of had a chargrilled-burnt taste to them. I wasn't certain that I liked them with the grilled onions as even with a little bit of mustard on the top of them I couldn't really taste the burger meat. I mean, it tasted all right - the burger was a little small and thin, but it wasn't misshapen or skimpy like the ones I encountered at the Cozy Inn in Salina, KS. (Click here to see my entry on that place.) Yeah, I could see how a person could eat 6 to 8 at a time.
I made short work of my burger and I asked the counter guy/grill cook to make me one more without the onions. I wanted to see if I could get a better taste of the meat. On hindsight, I should have gotten a double because this one was also pretty thin and with not a lot of meat. The great tasting Aunt Millie's bun overpowered the overall taste of the burger meat. Next time - double burgers.
I can't say that Powers Hamburgers were outstanding, but they were far from being "just average". I'm sure it's one of those tastes that the locals grew up with and crave when a Powers hamburger calls their name. But for the history of the place, the way that you literally go back in time when you enter that building, and the tradition of making the burgers the same way they have for over 70 years, Powers Hamburgers is a must stop if you're ever in Fort Wayne.