Okie Burgers & Drive-Ins

No one is certain who first thought of putting a Hamburg steak between two slices of bread, but hamburgers first appeared in the late 1800s or very early 1900s. Oklahoma, however, is the definite origin of two hamburger variations: the fried onion burger and the Theta burger.

This is the last of three posts about restaurants I knew and enjoyed in my hometown of Oklahoma City. I previously wrote about El Chico and its many relatives and descendants, along with pizza places.

Onion burgers are hamburger patties with paper-thin slices of Spanish white onion smashed in the meat, which are cooked together until the burger sears around the edges and the onions are caramelized and crisped. They were invented by Ross Davis around 1926 at the Hamburger Inn on Route 66 in downtown El Reno, west of Oklahoma City. Some online sources erroneously say it was Ardmore, but the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore was started much later in 1938 by Earnest and Lillian Brown.

Onions were cheap while hamburger meat was expensive. So Ross came up with the idea of adding onions to his burgers and smashing them into the meat with the back of his spatula. Ross would pound a half onion’s worth of shreds into a 5-cent burger. They caught on statewide in the Great Depression, when cheap food was a must.

Charcoal burgers are prepared quite differently, being cooked on a rack over charcoal, rather than being cooked on a gas grill or on the flat-top grill one uses to make a fried onion burger. Oklahoma City charcoal burgers are often thinner than other burgers and traditionally topped with hickory sauce. Hickory sauce is similar to barbecue sauce, but usually thinner with a pronounced tomato/umami character. Speaking of hickory sauce…

The Theta Burger

Theta burgers are another Oklahoma specialty and traditionally include mayonnaise, pickles, cheese, and, crucially, hickory sauce.

The Theta burger was either born at the Split-T in Oklahoma City or invented by Ralph Geist at the Town Tavern in Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma. The Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at OU claims it was named after them. Their story is that the sorority had a curfew of 10 p.m. and would call the Town Tavern for a late night burger delivery. Supposedly Ralph invented the Theta as a compromise burger all of the girls could agree on to simplify the late-night orders. Who knows if that’s true, but it is a good story.

The Split-T was where the Theta burger originated

Vince Stephens opened the Split-T on North Western in Oklahoma City in 1953, naming the restaurant after the offensive formation employed by the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team coached by Bud Wilkinson. Vince had been a member of the RUFNEKs cheer squad at OU.

Supposedly Stephens used his mother’s recipes for the Caesar dressing as well as for the hickory sauce in his Theta burger. In the mid-1960s, students from John Marshall and Harding high schools, as well as Bishop McGuinness, and Casady, hung out at the Split-T.

Stephens hired David Nathaniel Haynes as his first manager. Haynes had left home in Poteau, Oklahoma at age 15 to work in drive-ins in California, under the name “Johnnie” adapted from his father John’s name. He enlisted in the Army and spent three years as a cook in Germany before moving for good to Oklahoma City in 1950. He was working at the airport’s Sky Chef restaurant when Vince hired him, and he ran the Split-T through the 1960s while Vince spent much of his time with family in California.

The Split-T was one of the Oklahoma City restaurants targeted for desegregation by Clara Luper. She taught history at Dunjee High in Spencer in 1957 when she became the advisor for the OKC Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She wrote a play which the Council was invited to perform in New York City. That trip to a place where segregation did not thrive inspired the group to begin a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to end segregation in Oklahoma City.

They famously sat at the lunch counter at Katz Drug Store, were refused service, and they remained there, bringing out their books and studying, from opening to closing. A few days of that led Katz corporate management in Kansas City to desegregate its lunch counters in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa. Luper worked to integrate hundreds of restaurants, cafes, theaters, hotels, and churches. Locations that proved difficult for Clara to integrate were Anna Maude’s Cafeteria, the Skirvin Hotel, The Pink Kitchen, and…the Split-T.

Clara Luper in 1963

One Friday night, the Bishop McGuinness high school football team showed up at the Split-T. The manager refused to serve the blacks among the team, so the team walked out. With the high school principal’s blessing, the entire school boycotted the Split-T. Clara recalled staging a sit-in there, and she recalled how Split-T diners shouted profanities and threw ice and rocks at the protesters, who sang and chanted. Luper and others were arrested on complaints of disorderly conduct. And the next night, they did the same thing. More arrests and a restraining order followed. After the Split-T finally integrated, Clara was teaching at John Marshall High School. She commented, “When the walls of segregation fell, I didn’t go back there. I just couldn’t get an appetite.”

After Johnnie left in the 1970s, the Split-T declined, and Stephens later made half of it the T-Bar, which attracted state legislators. A group of Democrats that became known as the T-Bar 12 wanted to oust the Speaker of the House. They invited House members to lunch at the Split-T to gauge their happiness with the leader, and if griping began, lunch moved through the double doors to the T-Bar. In May 1989, the T-Bar rebellion hit the House floor and Jim Barker was removed.

Former OSU star Rusty Hilger was a partner in the 1980s, but became embroiled in a drug sting operation and the health department reported some serious violations. Brad Vincent and Chad O’Neal purchased the Split-T in 1994, but it closed in 2000 and was demolished in 2010. Now a Sonic Drive-In occupies that space.

The end in 2000

I never ate at the Split-T, but I’ve taken a look back at a couple of OKC burger joints and a couple of drive-ins I knew:

Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler

Theta burger at Johnnie’s

In 1971, Johnnie Haynes, formerly of the Split-T, took over Colonel Potter’s drive-in at Military Avenue and Britton Road, renaming Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. It had a 16 carhop stalls and a dozen inside booths. He brought the Theta burger and Caesar burger with him from the Split-T.

His son David was a senior in high school and one of the first managers. Another son, Rick, was 13 when the drive-in opened. They grew up working for their dad at his restaurants, teaching them a strong work ethic.

In 1977, Johnnie’s moved and expanded to 2652 W Britton Road, and later opened other branches across metro OKC. When he stepped away from running the business, his sons expanded aggresively, trying various options, including a couple of franchise locations in Tulsa in the 1990s. Some of the ideas, including the Tulsa franchises, didn’t last.

Johnnie Haynes and his sons with the hickory sauce

Johnnie died in 2000, but several of the restaurants continue in metro OKC under David and Rick.

Years ago, my parents began eating regularly at the Johnnie’s on Britton with a group of fellow retirees. I ate there a few times, but I dined mostly at the big branch on Northwest Expressway they opened in 1992. It eventually shrank, with half of it becoming their corporate office, and it was torn down in 2018. They built a new space nearby, which reopened in 2019.

The Johnnie’s on Britton Road as I remember it

Johnnie himself liked to serve cold shredded cheese on the burgers. Nowadays, they ask if you want that or prefer melted cheese. While my mother liked their hickory burger, and my father would sometimes order a Theta, I’ll confess that I just order a burger with mayonnaise and that mound of cold shredded cheese, along with a bunch of their yummy fries.

Charcoal Oven

I have never had an onion burger, but I’ve certainly had plenty of charcoal burgers. Some of the most charred ones were from my youth, when my parents would drive to the Charcoal Oven. Unlike many other drive-ins, you didn’t park in a stall and have your food brought out by a carhop. Instead, it was more like a drive-through.

The original sign and logo were drawn by a downtown OKC artist who was paid $8 for his work. A famous large neon sign was a replacement made of porcelain after the first one, which wasn’t as sturdy, was toppled by the wind. The second one lasted.

The way it operated was that you drove up to miniature version of the chef sporting a menu on his chest, with a loudspeaker at his navel. You gave your order via an intercom, and sometimes customers would gibe, “I didn’t know you could talk out of your stomach.”

Dave Wilson

You then drove on up to pass by the small building where you would pay and get your food. Then you could park along the exit route to enjoy your meal. There were enormous trash cans with huge chutes on each side at the exit, and when I was little, it was a thrill for me to toss our trash in them.

Charcoal Oven opened on Northwest Expressway just west of Pennsylvania Avenue in May 1958, owned and operated by David and Carolyn Wilson. As of 2008, the Wilsons also had a Charcoal Oven on the NW Expressway at MacArthur Blvd, but that one had carhops.

Crowd favorites at the Charcoal Oven were their #2 hickory burger, the Classic Theta Cheeseburger, and the Chick-a-Doodle-Doo sandwich. They served up fresh onion rings and Suzy-Q Fries.

Wilson also owned Quick’s, home of 19-cent hamburgers at NW 32nd and Classen Boulevard. When he opened the Charcoal oven in May 1958, business was slow until the Penn Square Shopping Center (which later was enclosed to become a mall) opened in 1959, a half-mile east. Northwest Classen high school kids hung out there.

Dave Wilson was known as a straight shooter who never stiffed anyone. He retired and closed the Charcoal Oven in 2016, but later opened a new location at 3604 N. May, operated by his son-in-law.

Coit’s Drive-In

Don Coit

The other drive-in my parents frequented was the Coit’s at NW 50th and Portland Avenue, although I never ate their burgers, preferring their Schwab’s weiners.

Don Coit was born in 1925. He and his three brothers struggled with their widowed mother to make ends meet. She worked at the stockyards, and the boys delivered newspapers. Don graduated from Classen High, served in World War II as a remote control turret mechanic gunner, and then attended OU.

Don returned to Oklahoma City and worked for his older brother Raymond at the stockyards, where he evaluated measurements and sales prices for cattle. But when a lot came up for sale at SW 25th and Western Avenue, he borrowed money from his mother and opened a Weber’s root beer stand in 1954.

The stand was just one room and a bathroom, with no windows, heat, or air conditioning. Solid boards were lifted and locked when they closed up. But Coit was able to pay back his mother, with interest. Winter business was terrible, and Don was struggling when an acquaintance at the fire department suggested he sell Christmas trees.

Don Coit and his Christmas trees

Don traveled west to Washington and east to North Carolina, getting to know tree growers, staying at their homes, and soon his business was as well known for its five Christmas tree lots as it was for the root beer stand.

In 1960, Don Coit turned his stand into a drive-in and restaurant, later opening branches at NW 39th and Pennsylvania and the one I knew best at 50th & Portland. Don bought a shopping plaza across 50th from that location, which became Coit Center, along with two more, and he invested in over 200 oil wells.

Coit’s at 50th & Portland in 2011

By the 1980s, the Coit’s logo with a Christmas tree atop the “i” was a fixture in town, with a large Christmas tree operation open every winter at the corner of Northwest Expressway and what is now the Lake Hefner Parkway.

An old Coit’s menu board
The Coit’s on Portland in its early days

As a child, I loved getting my own little frosty mug of root beer to go with my preferred Coit’s #3: a Schwab’s weiner with mustard only. As I grew, I eventually ordered two #3s, along with fries and of course a frosty mug of root beer. Coit’s grew as well, adding indoor dining at their Portland location, and eventually adding a sun room to accommodate the crowds.

The hot dog wrappers that I remember

But Coit’s later began to struggle, and Don Coit passed in 2005. The affiliation with Weber’s Root Beer had ended long before, and once I drove by their open back garage to see cases of A&W Root Beer. All three of the locations closed in 2012. Don’s widow, Jessie, passed in 2014, and the Coit’s at 50th and Portland is now a diner.

So what about Weber’s? It opened at 38th & Peoria in Tulsa in 1933, and is the oldest and longest-running business in the Brookside area. Oscar “Weber Bilby” created their formulation in the late 1800s, moving from Missouri to a farm north of Sapulpa in 1884. His secret recipe had 14 natural ingredients, all native to Oklahoma, which were “fire brewed” with pure cane sugar and water and then stored and aged in birch bark barrels, with yeast used to carbonate it. Oscar’s great grandson and his wife owned and operate the original stand through the end of 2021, with the next generation preparing to carry on the legacy. But I’ll confess that I’ve only had genuine Weber’s once. ‘Nuff said.

As for Schwab’s, George Peter Schwab emigrated from Sachsenhausen in 1890, moving to Kansas but then relocating to Oklahoma City around 1900. They founded a store selling “old world” sausages, with more family members joining the business in 1923. Now the company has fifth generation sausage makers.

Their weiners at Coit’s always had bright red casings, except for a brief spell after Red Dye No. 2 was pulled from the market in 1976 and the company had to reformulate.


A Sonic menu from my high school days

I don’t recall eating at a Sonic until I was in high school. PC West had open campus lunch for older students, and there was a Sonic a little over a half-mile east on 23rd Street.

My girlfriend and I could drive there for a quick lunch, and I always ordered the same thing: a foot-long hot dog with mustard only, an order of tater tots, and what the menu described as a “Delicious Juicy Orange” drink, which I insisted on ordering by that full description to be obnoxious. They didn’t sell cherry limeades back then.

In 1953, Troy Smith of Shawnee, Oklahoma opened the Top Hat, a former root beer stand, to serve hamburgers and hot dogs. While traveling in Louisiana the next year, he saw a food stall with homemade intercom speakers that allowed customers to order from their cars. He contacted the innovator and had him make an intercom for the Top Hat. Smith also added a canopy to shelter the vehicles and hired carhops on roller skates to deliver food directly to the cars. Each customer received a mint with their order, a tradition held to today to remind customers that they are “worth a mint.”

The old Top Hat Drive-Inns had instructions on how to use their fancy new intercoms

In 1956 Charlie Pappe, who managed a supermarket in Woodward, partnered with Smith to open another Top Hat. Two more popped up in Enid and Stillwater, but they discovered the name was already trademarked for another business. Top Hat’s jet age slogan was “service with the speed of sound” and they chose the new name “Sonic.”

By the time Smith sold the firm in 1973, there were over 120 Sonics in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas. Sonic Systems of America, later Sonic Industries, headquartered in Oklahoma City. By 1977, there were over 800 drive-in across 13 southern and southwestern states. The company became a collection of independent restaurants during the 1980s, but from 1995-2000 Clifford Hudson unified the company again. The 2000th Sonic opened in OKC in 1999. Now there are over 3,500 of the drive-ins in 44 of the 50 states.

But there isn’t a Sonic anymore at the location I frequented in high school; that is now an Oh! Donuts store. A newer sonic is just around the corner at 21st and Council Road.

And that wraps up my trilogy on OKC restaurants I remember.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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