The night before the resurrection, the new owners couldn’t sleep.
The cash register was packed with change. The ketchup and mustard bottles were full and set on each of the six wooden tables. They had already replaced the restaurant’s carpet with red-and-white tiles, and slapped a new coat of cherry red on the walls, and added new chairs and a new freezer and a bigger grease trap.
But none of that changed the question on Richie and Janna Shields’ minds: When they reopened the doors, months after the place went dark, would the old customers still love Hinkle’s?
Richie, 49, didn’t want a grand opening or a ribbon cutting. He wanted to keep things quiet.
But by noon on that first day, news had spread on social media. A line had formed, snaking around the corner of the restaurant. Cars spilled out of the parking lot. Orders piled in.
“Holy…” Richie trailed off, pausing for a moment between taking orders to look at the line, leaning over the red counter but still unable to see the end.
By the time the last customer had his order and the “Open” sign was flipped to “Closed,” the greasy perfume of frying oil had sunk into his clothes. As Richie slumped down with his wife, Janna, at their kitchen table, their legs were sore, their feet hurt and dried sweat clung to their skin. They were exhausted — and worried.
When Janna, 45, went home after opening day, she spent most of the evening crying. If every day was as stressful as the first, she wasn’t sure they would make it.
“Did we make a mistake?” she said.
People never expected Hinkle’s to close. After all, for 90 years, the doors were always open. Yet suddenly, on Feb. 9, 2019, another beloved Bloomington institution was gone.
Since 1930, Hinkle’s Hamburgers was the kind of place people went every week, where old friends gathered for high school reunions, where people would buy burgers to sneak to loved ones in the hospital. For some, it was a coveted last meal, what they would ask for while dying from cancer. Some even say the burgers were so good that just their smell could wake the dead slumbering in Rose Hill Cemetery across the street.
Hinkle’s had been around since the early days of Bloomington, when fast food joints were sparse, and the restaurant offered a welcome break from cooking at home. The restaurant had weathered the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Local legends from Herman B Wells to Olympic skater Jill Watson were occasional visitors.
Hinkle’s is the kind of small-town restaurant where boundaries between tables blur. In the 1960s, when a burger cost less than a quarter, hordes of fifth and sixth graders at Margaret McCalla Elementary School would follow a crossing guard to Hinkle’s and sit and chat with clusters of uniformed firefighters.
Today, strangers give each other fashion tips. An old couple coos at a 2-year-old child and offers parenting advice to the new mother. Employees and customers tease one another from opposite sides of the red counter.
A yellowed lyrics sheet from a newspaper clipping pulled from the archives at the Monroe County History Center paints a picture of restaurants of Bloomington’s past. “If a hamburger we did crave Hinkle’s were the very best in the entire midwest,” it reads.
The lyrics included musical musings about local eateries such as Wahl & Curry Bakery, an ice cream shop dubbed Dew Drop, a baker named Henry Boxman known for his chocolate fudge cake, a sandwich shop called Stone Brothers, The Men’s Grill, and Jordan Grill. Of the list, only Hinkle’s remains.
As restaurants have come and gone, Bloomington is now unrecognizable. But Hinkle’s is always the same, always open.
When Hinkle’s shut its doors, its community was left in shock and mourning. Among them were Richie and Janna, who couldn’t imagine Bloomington without the Hinkle’s they had loved since childhood.
Richie grew up going to Hinkle’s with friends after school. Before she was born, Janna’s parents would save up a nickel here and there during the Great Depression to buy Hinkle’s burgers as an occasional treat. When her grandfather died in 1999, his last meal was a Hinkle’s cheeseburger.
“Everyone has stories like that,” she said. “It means something to people.”
So no one saw it coming when Hinkle’s suddenly went dark.
For most of the spring, the once-bustling parking lot at Hinkle’s Hamburgers was empty. The grill was cold. The smell of onions that once clung to customers’ clothes died out.
Last February, after the sudden death of Scott Clark, the restaurant’s manager and son of its previous owners, Hinkle’s closed for three months. The day the doors of Hinkle’s shuttered, Richie received a call from his dad, who was friends with the owners Gary and Debbie Clark. Hinkle’s was up for sale, and the Shields had first dibs.
Richie and Janna didn’t know how to run a restaurant. A limestone cutter and an elementary school teacher, the two were out of their depth. But they couldn’t stand to see Hinkle’s closed, and Richie wanted to be the one to bring it back to life.
Janna wasn’t so sure.
“This is crazy,” she told her husband. “Absolutely not.”
But by the end of the week, Richie and Janna found themselves sitting at a table with Debbie, Scott’s mother, at an empty Hinkle’s.
Richie had never been in Hinkle’s after hours. Without the hum of the refrigerators, sizzle of the grill and roar of laughter and conversation, the place seemed hollow. Richie could no longer smell that Hinkle’s smell. When he turned to the cash register, Scott’s absence seemed palpable.
“I just felt weird almost, walking in,” he said. “I don’t think I have a word for it, just a weird feeling.”
As Richie and Janna sat in front of Debbie, they were faced with a decision — to buy Hinkle’s or to let it fall into someone else’s hands, someone else who may not love Hinkle’s the way they loved it.
Richie knew the restaurant was his chance at the career change he wanted. After 10 years of cutting limestone, he missed being around people.
Most of all, he didn’t want to let Hinkle’s die.
That following Tuesday morning, after a few days of debating, Janna woke up and turned to Richie in their bed.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
The Shields bought Hinkle’s in March. And all of a sudden, Richie became the owner of the restaurant that served the same burgers and milkshakes he loved as a child.
But when Richie and Janna stepped into the restaurant for the first time since buying it, the freezer immediately gave out. The floors were dirty, and the counters were cloaked in a thin layer of dust. Walls once coated with IU basketball memorabilia were stripped, and only a smattering of nail holes remained.
Hinkle’s was dead. It was up to the Shields to resurrect it.
Every once in a while, Janna would ask Richie if he was happy with their decision to buy Hinkle’s. Sometimes, she thought he regretted it. For the first few days, she certainly did.
After piling together the money to buy the restaurant, Richie quit his job as a limestone cutter for BG Hoadley Quarries, Inc. Hinkle’s was now his career.
“It’s my life now,” he said. “It’s my livelihood and my family’s livelihood that’s on the line.”
The burden of keeping the Hinkle’s name alive and the financial strain of the restaurant would at times weigh him down. Richie knew buying the restaurant was a gamble and felt the pressure from its most loyal customers and from himself.
If he lets his mind wander, it often fills with thoughts of “Are we doing this right? Are we keeping Hinkle’s what it is?” Sometimes he thinks his mind is his worst enemy.
If you want to understand how much people loved Hinkle’s and the pressure resting on Richie’s shoulders, you have to know about Toni Terrell.
Toni and her brother Kiley, both just around 40 years old, huddled together in his room back in 2008 as she slumped her backpack off her shoulder.
“Bones, did you bring me the goods?” Kiley would ask from his wheelchair with a big, goofy smile, calling Toni by her childhood nickname.
“Of course,” she said, pulling out a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of Hinkle’s cheeseburgers and fries.
Kiley was dying. After a stubbed toe got infected and led to gangrene, he found himself in the hospital on dialysis with both legs amputated. Within three months, all his hair was gray, and he weighed only 150 pounds at 6 foot 4 inches tall.
For those three months, Toni would sneak him Hinkle’s burgers under the nose of their mother at least once a week. It was a special treat during his diet of low-sodium, low-fat foods.
Together, the siblings hid in Kiley’s bedroom, stuffing crinkle-cut fries into their burgers and reminiscing about fishing, playing in the woods until dark and riding dirt bikes together as kids. They were close as kids but grew apart over the years. Their covert meals are what brought the two back together.
“We felt like kids again,” Toni said. “It was like everything that happened between us was gone, and we were just little kids hiding from our mom and laughing together.”
One day Kiley rolled up next to Toni in his wheelchair.
“You know, this is the last time I’ll have Hinkle’s,” he told her.
“That’s nonsense,” she said to him, certain they’d have more time together.
But Kiley was right.
He died that year, just a week before his 40th birthday. For two years after he died, Toni kept the Ziploc bag she used to carry the burgers in.
“It still smelled like Hinkle’s,” she said. “I know the smell. It’s in my bones.”
Two years after her brother died, her mother Elizabeth was in the hospital with sclerosis. And while Toni thought she’d fooled her mom by sneaking her brother Hinkle’s, Elizabeth revealed the truth.
“I knew what you were doing, sneaking those Hinkle’s in,” she told Toni. “And I want you to do the same for me.”
So she did. For weeks, Toni brought Hinkle’s cheeseburgers to her mother’s hospital bed. When her mother could no longer eat, Toni would bring her burgers, unwrap them and lay them on a plate next to her bed so she could at least smell them.
“Hinkle’s was home,” Toni said. “When they had a Hinkle’s in hand, they were home.”
For Toni, Hinkle’s had become home too.
“When you get older, the people around you die,” she said. “When you’re young, you have a home to go back to with your family, but pretty soon you don’t have that anymore.”
Without the family she grew up with, the place they shared meals together became what she thought of when she heard the word “home.”
“It’s like walking into your mom’s kitchen,” she said.
After her mother died nearly 10 years ago, Toni never stepped foot in Hinkle’s again. It brought back too many memories, she said. As she drove by the restaurant, she often thought about stopping in. But in the end, she could never bring herself to do it.
Yet when Hinkle’s closed, she was left in mourning, not only for Hinkle’s but also for her brother and mother. All over again.
“I was still hurt when they closed down, but then I thought ‘Why am I so hurt? I haven’t been there in years,’” she said. “But it still hurt to see it all boarded up.”
Then one day, as she drove by the old place, Toni noticed lights flickering on.
As it opened its doors May 7, 2019, and roared back to life, Hinkle’s looked a lot like it always had.
The menu and its prices — a burger for only $2.19 — were left largely untouched except for the addition of the Chubbs burger: a triple patty burger with cheese, three onion rings, BBQ sauce and a name inspired by the Shields daughters’ nicknames for one another.
The shop has the same cluster of six wooden tables, the same sizzle of burgers on the grill and the same yellow-tinted glow of the ceiling lights. And while the staff is mostly new faces, the same grill cook with a hair net on his beard toils away in kitchen.
John Donovan, 63, throws a beef patty onto a hot grill, tosses some onions on it and smashes it down with his spatula. It’s a classic move that’s been repeated countless times in the past nine decades. John learned it by watching Scott at the grill. His assistant, Shelby, 26, learned it by watching him. John expects Shelby will take over the grill when he retires, but he doesn’t plan on it any time soon.
The customers at Hinkle’s often claim there’s something special in the burgers, some kind of secret to the proverbial sauce. But John says it’s just fresh ground beef and onions. The real magic, he says, is in the grill, passed down for generations.
“I’ve tried making Hinkle’s burgers at home, the same recipe, the same everything,” he said. “But it’s never the same, not without that grill.”
More than five decades ago, an 8-year-old John spent his afternoons spinning on the red stools of Hinkle’s, watching Leon Hinkle behind the grill, always with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
“Can’t get away with that anymore,” John said, chuckling behind his beard net.
He never thought he would be standing in Leon’s place behind the grill.
John has been the grill cook at Hinkle’s for almost a decade. People recognize him wherever he goes. Shoppers would ask him when Hinkle’s would reopen while he perused aisles at Walmart. The bankers at the IU Credit Union proclaim “someone smells like Hinkle’s” every time he steps foot in the building.
With John still behind the grill and Richie adjusting to his new gig, things have calmed down at Hinkle’s. There are still the occasional slip-ups. One morning a delayed meat delivery led the restaurant to close for 45 frustrating minutes. Sometimes a large order will slow things down on the grill. Occasionally, Richie runs low on change.
But after more than eight months, the new Hinkle’s owners have settled into a new routine. Business is good, and there’s a regular rush of people during lunch hours. Richie is coming home less stressed, and Janna’s regrets have been replaced by excitement.
Most customers will tell you that things haven’t really changed, except maybe the floor is cleaner.
As he’s had more time at the helm of the restaurant, Richie has slowly begun to realize his new place in the lineage of Hinkle’s owners and in the history of his hometown.
“To be a part of that in the town you grew up in, it’s crazy,” he said. “It’s like ‘I own Hinkle’s.’ Sometimes I think about it and I think, ‘Seriously?’”
“It’s like nothing has changed."
— Toni Terrell
Toni couldn’t bear to go in when it first reopened, but months later, there she was, staring at the Hinkle’s sign plastered onto the wall.
As soon as she stepped foot outside the car, she smelled it.
The scent of the onions and beef John had flattened onto the grill floated through the parking lot as Toni made her way to Hinkle’s for the first time in almost a decade. It made her wish she had held onto the Hinkle’s-scented Ziploc bag she used to carry her brother’s burgers in just a little longer.
“It smells just like it used to,” she said, tears gathering in her eyes. “It’s like nothing has changed.”
Toni stood in front of Hinkle’s, looking at the sign with her hands crossed over her chest. She took a deep breath. A decade had passed since her brother and mother died and since she had been to the restaurant.
The day she returned was the first sunny day that week.
“It’s as if God was smiling down on us, telling my brother ‘Hey look, your sister is talkin’ ‘bout ya,’” she said.
A few more moments pacing in the parking lot, and Toni walked inside. When she looked at the cash register, she could see herself waiting to order behind her brother, reading through the menu even though she already knew what she wanted.
She spotted a couple sitting at a table in the corner with their two young children.
“Maybe now I can bring my grandchildren too,” she said, watching them with a smile.
As she passed the red counter, tracing her hand along it as she walked, Toni could picture her brother leaning over it, flirting with the waitress he had a crush on. And when she sat in silence at the table by the window, the same one she and Kiley sat at so many years ago, she stared out at the parking lot, searching for a ghost walking up to Hinkle’s on legs he no longer had.
“When I walked in, I almost looked around my shoulder to see if he was there,” she said. “I almost thought I saw him.”
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