I read a handful of hamburger/cheeseburger blogs from time to time trying to get ideas as to places I'd like to visit in my travels across the Midwest and beyond. One place that was prominently mentioned in some of those blogs - a place I knew about for years, but had never visited before - was The Cozy Inn located in downtown Salina, KS (see map). I hadn't been to Salina in years, but I had been trying to work up a relationship with Salina-based Acoustic Sounds, a mail-order/Internet house that sells higher-end electronics and accessories, as well as vinyl records. I had a meeting with the sales team at Acoustic Sounds earlier this summer and I had time to stop by The Cozy Inn to try their burgers.
Since 1922, The Cozy Inn has been selling millions of "Cozies", as the locals call them, out of the little six-stool building on N. 7th St., just north of Iron Ave. Bob Kinkel was a young semi-pro baseball player who had relocated to Salina to look for business opportunities. With the sudden success of a burger place that opened up in 1921 down the line a bit in Wichita - a place called White Castle - Kinkel decided that selling steamed hamburgers would be a good business venture.
Kinkel's small burgers and small building gave diners a cozy feeling, hence, The Cozy Inn name. The little burgers - steam-grilled with onions, then topped with ketchup, mustard and pickle (no cheese) - were 5 cents each and two-bits would be a satisfying meal for most people. Through the Depression in the early 30's, The Cozy Inn thrived because Kinkel kept the price of his burgers at 5 cents - and kept that price until the early 40's.
The outbreak of World War II brought thousands of soldiers to Salina due to the town's proximity to two bases that were built in the early 40's. The Cozy Inn continued to gain steam by selling thousands of burgers to G.I.'s who were looking for a good meal at a low price. And many of these G.I.'s would write home to their families and friends telling them about these great cheap burgers coming from a little building in the middle of Kansas.
When the burger craze began to take hold across America in the 50's, Bob Kinkel and his wife, Kathryn, (pictured left in the 1940's) were already ahead of the rest when it came to good burgers at a low price. Unfortunately, Bob passed away in 1960 leaving Kathryn to continue to run the business. Kathryn eventually remarried to a gentleman by the name of Dick Pickering and they continued to run the business for the next 30 years.
With the passing of Dick Pickering in the early 90's, then Kathryn soon thereafter, the family had bequeathed the restaurant to be run and profits shared by three Salina area institutions - St. John's Military School, Kansas Wesleyan University and Salina Regional Health Center. After two years, the three institutions decided to sell the restaurant to two Salina men - Gregg Boyle and Max Holthaus. After running the business for about 10 years, Holthaus and Boyle sold the business to Steve Howard in 2007.
Howard (right) announced earlier this year that he was looking to open a Cozy Inn location in the Aggieville area of Manhattan, KS, near the campus of Kansas State University. The biggest problem Howard faces is replicating the grill at the original Cozy Inn in Salina - a grill that has been in use since the early 1930's. With millions of burgers and tons of onions cooked on that grill over the years, it will be tough to match the taste of burgers cooked on a grill that already has a signature taste built into them.
I got into The Cozy Inn just before noon. Just like White Castle burgers and Nick's Hamburger Shop in Brookings, SD, the signs around the restaurant encourage their customers to "buy 'em by the sack". Over the years, The Cozy Inn has grown with an addition on the north side after tearing down and old building adjacent to the place in the 1980's. Where the building next to The Cozy Inn was torn down, a parking lot was built. There's a walk-up window on the north side of the building next to their parking lot. Stacks of buns were in the back room area and the staff was working feverishly over the grill making about two to three dozen of the small burgers. The smell of cooking onions and ground meat was heavenly.
A crowd had gathered in the little space - all six of the stools were occupied and another six to eight people were waiting to get their orders. I looked at the basic menu on the wall opposite the counter and decided to order six burgers. Only I made the rookie mistake of asking for six CHEESEburgers. The man behind the counter gruffly said, "No cheese!"
Oh, OK! Well, make it six burgers! I got a bottle of water to go along with the burgers. I tried to take a few pictures with my camera phone, but the people behind the counter were moving quickly and the two people tending to the grill were hunched over it, not giving me much of a clear shot of the burgers and onions on the steam grill.
About five to seven minutes after I ordered, the guy who took my order asked me what I'd ordered - they don't write anything down at The Cozy Inn - and he figured up what six burgers and a bottle of water cost. It came to $5.60 plus tax ("Cozies" are 75 cents each, double "Cozies" are $1.30 each). He handed me a bottle of water, then a sack of my six burgers. The Cozy Inn has a handful of tables outside, so I went out and opened up the sack for my first "Cozy" experience.
The burger was very small, but a bit bigger than a White Castle burger. It appeared that each of the burgers were hand-patted and pressed on the grill. It had a good flavor to the burger, although the patty wasn't very thick.
Then I opened the next one up to take a picture of the burger with the condiments on top (pictured lower left). I sort of stopped and looked incredulously at the burger patty, exclaiming, "Well, what the hell?" There *may* have been two ounces of meat on my burger. I about crapped on the spot. There was more of the bun and condiments than burger! Two bites of that particular burger and all that was left was half a bun with some grilled onions and a pickle smeared with mustard and ketchup. At least a White Castle "slider" has a patty that covers the square width of their buns. These hardly covered 2/3rds of the size of the bun.
I unwrapped and opened up another burger (pictured upper right) - this one was just as bad. The burger was mis-shapen and it looked like a large chunk had fallen off when it was transferred to the bun. I couldn't believe that this was the great Cozy Inn that bloggers, food critics and historians called one of the great treasures of Middle America. I mean, I make bigger meatballs at home than the amount of meat they put on a "Cozy" burger.
Feeling very disheartened and somewhat cheated in my experience, I quickly finished my final three burgers (checking each to see that, they too, were woefully short of beef) and dutifully threw away my trash in one of the outdoor receptacles. I stopped to take a few exterior pictures before I left and then I got in my car to take off for Hays, KS - fully thinking that I'd been overly screwed by The Cozy Inn. As I drove down Interstate 70 to the west thinking, "THAT was THE Cozy Inn that I'd heard about and read about for years? The same one that all these people raved over the taste of their burgers?" I was severely disappointed, to say the least.
One burger blog from an East Coast man that I visit from time to time - and whose opinion of what makes a great burger falls in line with mine - stated that the Cozy Inn was the best burger he'd ever tasted. While the taste of the burger was good - when there was ground beef on the bun - I thought the "Cozies" at The Cozy Inn were over-hyped, over-priced and average, at best. This place wouldn't even come close to making an honorable mention on my List of Top Burgers. The history, the unique nature of the business and the build-up to my visit to The Cozy Inn were all trounced by the minuscule offerings on their burgers. If I get back out to Salina in the future, I won't be going back to The Cozy Inn.