I have not seen the movie The Founder yet – it opened last month so I need to hurry – which stars Michael Keaton as the legendary Ray Kroc, the Illinois salesman who met the two McDonald brothers, Mac and Dick, at their California drive-in. The visionary Kroc later took over the business himself and built it into a fast-food empire that not only made a multi-billion dollar fortune, but completely changed the American way of “fast casual” dining.
Until Ray Kroc successfully re-vamped the concept of the American drive-in, the beloved hand-held sandwich known as the hamburger was an inexpensive staple of family-owned drive-ins (the kind with carhops), drinking joints with flat-top grills, and corner drug stores or dime stores – think Woolworth’s or Kresge’s – with soda fountains.
McDonald’s restaurants helped make the drug store soda fountains obsolete – they were costly to maintain and staff and they wasted potential retail space; they were also frequently racially segregated– so by the 1960s, they were mostly gone…and frankly, good riddance.
The other businesses that became antiques in the post-McDonald’s universe were the 24-hour diners, dinettes and cafes that offered none of the tidy consistency, polished cleanliness, and the limited menu selection of a slickly-operated corporate franchise.
The Kansas City metro once had quite a number of these all-night joints – typically serving breakfast dishes, burgers, chili, and pie – and I still mourn the loss of some of them, like the Earl’s Hamburgers on Linwood Boulevard or the iconic Heriford Grill on Independence Avenue (an early rival to the White Castle chain; the both sold little burgers “by the sack”).
Johnson County’s best-known old school diner remains the 28-year-old Town Topic diner at 6018 Johnson Drive in Mission. It’s sort of the stepsister of the older Town Topic venues in downtown Kansas City, which date back to the years just prior to World War II (only the Broadway Town Topic at 2021 Broadway is still open for 24 hours each day).
The Mission Town Topic was once a family-owned business called Whopper Burgers – no connection to Burger King, which allegedly threatened to sue them – and later became a satellite of the local Town Topic restaurants, although there are notable differences: The Mission Town Topic, unlike the downtown venues, does not serve pies from the Overland Park-based Golden Pies.
“We don’t sell that many pies here,” a server told me years ago. “We were throwing a lot of pies away. If you want pie, you have to go downtown.”
The two Kansas City Town Topics also serve their meals on plates; the Mission operation still uses plastic mesh baskets. It also closes at 3 p.m. (the Baltimore Street location closes at 2:30 p.m.).
But the highly-seasoned chili recipe is pretty much the same at all three restaurants (fans of the Mission location insist their chili isn’t as spicy) and they all offer excellent double cheeseburgers.
Unlike Ray Kroc, the founder of the local Town Topics, Claude Sparks, did not become a multi-billionaire. But the fact that the metro still has, eight decades later, even one Town Topic left, makes us all richer for it.