By Emilie Sims
“When I first came here, hamburgers were 25 cents, and for a nickel extra you could get an order of fries in a basket, and 15 cents extra was a Coke.”
Longtime Cupp’s Drive Inn customer Fred Winslow, who has been a regular since the 1960s, said he remembers a simpler time at this locally owned diner.
With its old-fashioned barstools and its counter in front of the flat grill, Cupp’s Drive Inn provides locals with a dining experience they will find nowhere but this small family-owned restaurant. Tucked behind a fast food chain at 15th Street and Speight Avenue, just off Interstate 35, this small all-American diner proves it has stood the test of time as generations of families continue to visit Cupp’s.
“Not many people know about it,” Dallas senior Christopher Hillman said, “which might be one of the reasons we like it so much.”
Juicy hamburgers, fresh French fries, hand-filled onion rings, even classic breakfast foods such as eggs, bacon and omelets. These are just a few of the items that Cupp’s has served its customers for more than 50 years.
Founded in 1929 as Heating’s Eatings, Cupp’s adopted its current name in 1947. The building itself has remained in the same location through the years, making some small renovations along the way.
“The windows are all the same, the ductwork is all the same,” Winslow said.
In 1947, Charlie Cupp and his wife bought the restaurant and transformed it into the classic diner it is known as today. As its name suggests, Cupp’s Drive Inn offered a drive-in option for customers until around 15 years ago, but now it offers only the vintage barstools and cozy booths inside the restaurant, as well as a picnic area outside. Winslow said he remembers sitting at the same counter ordering a burger while on a lunch break from working at a coin laundry with his father 50 years ago.
Winslow, a burger enthusiast and a regular at the restaurant, said he believes Cupp’s is “the best burger place in all of Texas and all of the United States.”
Even through the changes in the world and the community surrounding the restaurant, Cupp’s Drive Inn has remained largely the same. The same food, the same service and the same building continue to welcome customers year after year, decade after decade.
Cupp’s has been operated by siblings Freddie Johnson Jr. and Sherry Caughenbaugh since 1988 when their mother Betty bought the diner. It is run full time by the brother and sister duo, and a few other employees.
As Hillman sat in a booth with classmate Brian Kelly eating his greasy, old-fashioned burger and fries, he recalled his freshman year, when he first discovered the burger joint. Through the years, Cupp’s has remained a staple for Hillman because it is a “fun place, good food, close, simple and often overlooked,” he said.
“Our hamburgers are what we’re known for,” Cupp’s co-operator Johnson said. The restaurant is famous for its classic, fresh-made American fare. The recently introduced breakfast specials, including bacon, omelets, pancakes, eggs, hash browns and more, have also been a hit with customers, Johnson said.
Recently, Cupp’s has also had customers requesting less common things with their food, such as eggs or ham on their hamburger, or ordering a chili cheeseburger. The diner staff accommodates even the strangest requests, Johnson said, in order to keep customers happy and returning.
Hamburgers and buns are grilled and toasted atop the flat grill before they are served to customers. Hillman said he prefers Cupp’s hamburger buns over other burger joints’ because “they’re the right amount of crispy and the right amount of soft.” He said he also likes the thin patties in Cupps’ hamburgers. The French fries and onion rings are all hand cut and fried next to the counter as well.
For generations, customers have enjoyed the hand-cooked, made-to-order food at Cupp’s.
“We do our own fresh meat, we peel potatoes every day, and the onion rings, we hand cook and fill them,” co-operator Sherry Caughenbaugh said.
Customers have the option of sitting at one of the eight barstools at the counter in front of the flat grill to watch their order being made. While they watch their burgers simmer on the grill, it is not uncommon to find the staff engaging in friendly conversation with them. Even as the newest employee of Cupp’s, Julia Gomez said she has already begun recognizing the regular customers. “You learn their names fast,” Gomez said.
Regular customers have the opportunity to see the same four friendly faces each time they visit the diner, and the staff is able to get to know the longtime customers.
“It’s like the customers are your family,” Caughenbaugh said. “You just kind of watch everybody grow up.”
Customers develop relationships and get to know the staff at Cupp’s, as well. “You know who it’s going to be when you get here,” Hillman said. “Even if they don’t know you, they treat you like they do.”
In many customers’ cases, their family has been visiting Cupp’s for generations. It is a tradition for these people and these families to continue dining here. “We have so many customers, a lot of families, like I said— generations, where your parents or your grandparents came here,” Caughenbaugh said. Part of the excitement of working at a restaurant like Cupp’s is the opportunity to get to know all the customers, hear their stories, and keep up with them, she said.
Though many of Cupp’s customers are regulars or have been visiting the restaurant for years, it still receives first-time customers like friends of the family. Columbia, Mo., senior Brian Kelly, who said he first came to Cupp’s his sophomore year, said he often chooses Cupp’s for his lunch break not only for the tasty burgers and fries, but also because it is “somewhere we don’t normally think about for the normal lunch places,” he said.
A first-time customer of Cupp’s, Sugar Land freshman Alicia Boczar, said she experienced a similar situation with the friendly, chatty staff and enjoyable service. After ordering a cheeseburger with fries and a Dr Pepper from her barstool at the counter, she said she could already tell she had discovered one of Waco’s best hidden treasures. “I just want to keep going back there,” Boczar said.
Since it is only open for business during breakfast and lunchtime, customers of Cupp’s fill the restaurant during these hours.
“We get filled up real quick, since it’s such a small restaurant, but the tables move real fast, people are real courteous, and everybody knows each other,” Johnson said. “If you don’t know each other, you’ll know each other by the time you leave.”
In its early days, Cupp’s accepted only cash as payment from customers. But soon, with advances in technology, Cupp’s was able to begin accepting credit and debit cards in order to provide more options for payment for all customers.
Cupp’s Drive Inn, located at 1424 Speight Avenue in Waco., is open for business 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with breakfast served from 8:30 to 11 a.m.