Story by Liz Cohen
Photos by Jeanne Knepper
Cupps Drive-In, an original fast-food restaurant located at 1424 Speight Avenue, has been a prominent staple of the Waco community, at the same location, for many generations. Originally founded in 1929 as Heatings Eatings, Cupps assumed its current name in 1947 when it was purchased by Charlie Cupp and became the diner it is today.
Cupps has an old fashioned American diner atmosphere, with booths across one wall and stools along a bar that separates customers from the grill. The menu includes breakfast items such as eggs to order, omelets, oatmeal and grits, as well as lunchtime fare, like hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken fried steak, steak fingers, onion rings and fries.
It is operated full time by siblings Freddie Johnson Jr. and Sherry Caughenbaugh, two friendly faces who will cheerfully take your order and prepare it right before your eyes. This pair handles all aspects of running the restaurant including mowing the lawn. After several years, they have only recently hired a person to help them with the chores.
“Our old diner feel has been working for over fifty years,” said Johnson. The family has been operating Cupps full time since 1988, when their mother, Betty, bought the business. Since Betty retired last year, Johnson and Caughenbaugh have become partners and plan to continue the Cupps tradition. “Four booths and eight stools, this is what Cupps is, and we’re not changing that,” Johnson said of the future of the diner.
Customers come to Cupps for its atmosphere and great food and are always warmly greeted when they walk through the door, with many of the regulars addressed by name. Eating there is like being transported back in time; with aged pictures on the walls, and the smell of comfort food in the air, it’s easy to see what the place was like many decades ago.
“We’ve got a tradition going,” Caughenbaugh said. “Many generations have come through here.” The food that Cupps offers is completely fresh. Caughenbaugh makes hamburger balls every morning, which is a job passed on to her after her mother retired. The onion rings are made of fresh-cut onions and are hand-battered; all of the food items are given careful preparation.
“Cupps is the place to eat a good ol’ fashioned hamburger,” said Henry Torres, 68, a customer who has been eating there since he was a child. Torres, who left Waco in 1965 and returned in June of this year, had a hard time locating Cupps, as the city had grown up around it. “I kept going up to the freeway and thinking it wasn’t there,” he said. “There was no freeway there when I left Waco.”
Eventually he found it and tries to go there as often as he can. “A lot has changed in 46 years. It’s remarkable Cupps is still around,” he said. He craves the old fashioned hamburgers and thinks that the new fast food restaurants don’t make them the same way.
Cupps is a place that has been visited by several generations of Torres’s family. When Torres was young, his aunt took him there to get a hamburger. “Now I’m going to be taking my grandkids there,” he said.
Another person who visited Cupps when he was little is Mike Tillery, now a produce deliverer through Heart of Texas Produce. He started eating here with his grandmother when he was a small child. “Little places like this are hard to find, especially now,” Tillery said. He also loves the old fashioned style of cooking at Cupps and the cheerful one-on-one interactions with the owners. “Plus here you can watch what they’re cooking for you.”
“Customers are like a second family to me,” Caughenbaugh said. “I don’t see them for a few weeks and I start to worry.” She has worked part-time at Cupps since she was 12, at first starting with small jobs and later moving up to taking customer orders and running the place. Caughenbaugh was taught to keep busy and do what needs to be done. High on the priority list is dishes, which can pile up for a half hour of extra work at closing time. Of course, the customers are a high priority. “I like to keep in mind that customers are always in a hurry,” she said. That way she and her brother focus to provide the fastest possible service.
“We also try to help around the community when we’re asked,” Johnson said. Since their establishment is small, donations are occasional but go toward a variety of causes, such as Church under the Bridge, Meals on Wheels, and local high schools.
Cupps has only recently begun accepting credit and debit cards, because of the cost of setting up the service. “It was worth it,” Caughenbaugh said. “It made the customers happy.”
Cupps has changed very little since its beginning and is like being transported back in time to a simpler era before the proliferation of chain operated fast food restaurants. Now it is possible to get a hamburger anywhere and at virtually any hour, but it wouldn’t be a Cupps hamburger or even close to the same experience. What separates Cupps from these giants is the consistency of the food offered and the individual attention given to the customers.
The long historical aspect of eating there is also significant, as this business survived the Great Depression of the 1930’s and countless other events in our history. It is also not difficult to imagine the many young men and women who were Cupps customers that graduated Baylor University or left Waco to serve in the military from the late 1940’s to the present day. It is very likely that when they were far away, perhaps in a foreign country, they remembered the distinct flavor of a Cupps lunch and vowed to return; certainly many of them did come back and led many generations of their families here too. Cupps has certainly stood the test of time and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.