100 years and 16 presidents ago, The Cozy Inn opened in Salina, Kansas. Bob Kinkel, the original owner, used his tiny space to whip up palm-sized bites of beef. He got the idea from White Castle, who had begun operations one year earlier in Wichita. Churning out dozens of mini-burgers at a time, he would slide them down the counter atop sheets of waxed paper. It’s likely that this was where the term “sliders” began. We stopped in to check out their burgers by the bagful and find out what has kept this business in the forefront for over a century.
100 Years and Counting
Staying small has helped The Cozy Inn survive hard times. During the Depression, many large scale restaurants shuttered their doors due to rising costs. This inexpensive meal option, limited menu, and small staff allowed this burger joint to remain nimble. In the 1940s, two new military bases opened nearby. The Cozy Inn began receiving visits from enlisted men and their families, which provided a boost to sales. The 1980s saw a revitalization of downtown Salina, which threatened the future of the restaurant. Public outcry would help save the business and provided the spark for an exterior renovation.
Keeping with Tradition
Over time, the original owners passed away and the business changed hands. In 2007, Steve Howard became sole owner of The Cozy Inn. Growing up in Salina, he knew the value of retaining the traditions that made the business famous. The six-stool design has remained, as well as the original grill top. The grill will hold up to 55 burgers at a time and Steve has often found himself at full capacity. Even with a flurry of customers, his infectious smile greets you as you pass through the doorway.
In 1922, the six-stool diner was becoming popular, although it’s a fad that would disappear with time. Stepping through the door, we were greeted with the aroma of grilled beef and onions. It’s the kind of smell that permeates your clothes and reminds you of your visit for the entire day. The stools were occupied and it was standing-room only. For a second we considered using the walk-up window, but decided we wanted the whole experience. We stood there admiring the constant buzz of activity behind the counter. They have certainly perfected the assembly-line style of building burgers by the bagful.
The capacity to produce dozens of burgers at a time means that the wait wasn’t too long for our meal. We watched as those in front of us received their orders and dived into their sliders. The menu is about as basic as you will find. Cozy burgers come as singles or doubles and topped with onions and pickle. If you are feeding a crowd (or just really hungry) you can get them by the bagful. We ordered a half-dozen, but they also offer up to 48 burger quantities. Our order included; a half-dozen Cozy burgers, one bag of chips, and a root beer. Since the six stools were all occupied, we opted to enjoy our meal at one of their retro outdoor tables.
Burgers by the Bagful
When other customers discovered it was our first visit, they happily shared their earliest memories of the Cozy Inn. It was apparent that this place has created a following that borders on becoming a cult classic. With each story, we became increasingly eager to sample the sliders for ourselves. Opening our bagful of burgers, we were greeted by the delightful smell that we had found inside. My mouth was already watering by the time I had everything laid out before us. Diving in without hesitation, we were quickly engrossed in our meal.
The Cozy Inn
Our visit to Salina, Kansas was made to visit the Smoky Hill Museum, so adding this lunch stop was a bonus. As we made our way back to our car, the conversation focused on the devouring that we had just completed. We knew the flavor of our burgers by the bagful would stay with us far down the road. This is exactly the kind of meal that fits perfectly into a road trip. After all, it was quick, unique, and delicious. What more could anyone ask for from a 100-year-old establishment?
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