By Rob Bradfield
For decades, Wacoans have enjoyed down-home cooking from one of the last of a dying breed of Texas diners.
Kim’s, founded by Gene Stanley and her late husband W. O. “Bill” Stanley, has been a Waco institution since 1956.
Although Kim’s has fallen into obscurity among Baylor students, the restaurant still has a dedicated following of Waco natives.
Glenn Gilbert, a retired adult education teacher at McLennan Community College, has been a Kim’s regular since 1977.
“Everybody knows me. I’ve been coming here so long because they treat you like family,” he said.
Gilbert is part of a core of regulars that includes judges, ministers and nine-to-five workers that have been coming to Kim’s for generations, sometimes as often as twice a day.
The current location at 2600 W. Waco Drive has been open since 1963 and is the last of five Waco locations. Kim’s is open 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and until 8 p.m. on Friday.
Kim’s is most famous for its hamburgers, which come in 12 varieties and with a wide selection of toppings.
The restaurant also offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu featuring everything from the standard eggs, pancakes and sandwiches, to local favorites like chicken fried steak, western omelettes and fried cauliflower.
Stanley has been in the restaurant business for decades, spending much of that time with her husband. Bill Stanley opened a chain of restaurants in West Texas with a friend from Abilene Christian University in the early 1950s. Gene Stanley joined her soon-to-be husband when they opened their first drive-in locations in Abilene and Sweetwater.
“We were bought out by Kip’s Big Boy in Dallas, and for some reason, we moved to Waco,” Stanley said.
Stanley and her husband opened the first Kim’s on East Waco Drive to serve airmen stationed at James Connally Air Force Base. They would later open four more restaurants, including the current location. Kim’s quickly became popular among high school and college students in addition to locals.
The Valley Mills Drive location was especially popular with members of the Baylor football coaching staff. Former head coach John Bridgers and former freshman football coach Milburn “Catfish” Smith were regulars, alongside a host of Baylor students and athletes through the mid-1960s.
The restaurants began closing during the early 1970s as the areas around the restaurants changed, and the large Waco schools and businesses that supported them closed or moved. The original location closed during the decline of East Waco, and one by one the others followed suit.
The last location, a mere shadow of the success of the chain, is kept afloat by a core of regulars and a lingering popularity among local families.
The first thing anyone notices driving by is the huge, red 1960s-era vintage sign. Four silver points extend from a malt glass next to a sign bearing a large arrow and the words “Kim’s Hamburgers Etc.”
The building is ringed with the words “Burgers, Shakes, Steaks” in large orange letters. Inside, a large bar separates the kitchen from the main dining room. Small tables and booths are lit by hanging glass lamps and a large air filter hangs in the back corner, a holdover from a time when restaurants allowed smoking.
The walls are blue and decorated with pictures from old Waco, paintings of the Texas country and a portrait of the 1981 Dallas Cowboys. The front door that used to feature the image of Kim, a young, blonde version of the Big Boy mascot, is now boarded over with plywood.
On Nov. 8, a truck hit the front of Kim’s, destroying the front door and damaging the ceiling and windows. The incident is still under investigation.
“They [the police] called me and told me there was a truck in my dining room,” Gene Stanley said.
The wreck closed the restaurant for a day while city officials inspected the damage and workers made the building usable. In spite of this setback and its relative obscurity within the Baylor community, Kim’s still receives high ratings and good reviews on websites such as UrbanSpoon and WacoFork.
Even during the recession, Kim’s has managed to keep most of its customers, and Gene Stanley has no intention of that changing any time soon.
“I’ll be here as long as business is good, and it’s been good to us,” she said.
Stanley says that she will be in business as long as anyone still wants diner food done right.