Hair pulled back into a John Deere cap, a busy woman hollers, “Mom, more buns!” as she throws fresh patties on a sizzling grill. Antique pallet-framed photos line the wood paneling and half-empty white trash bags find their home stuffed in corners. Six generations of grandkids are slapped unevenly across the back wall. Outside, a small blue awning is adorned with a single plastic sign with a name and phone number. You wouldn’t think much of this hole-in-the-wall cafe sitting on the corner of a slow Bellmead street, but you would be wrong.
Christi’s Hamburgers, located a quick drive north of Waco, is the kind of down-home place your pappy takes you after church on Sunday, the kind only the locals know about. For years, resident Wacoans have been making the short drive up I-35 to this classic southern diner. Perched on Beale Street, Christi’s shares its home with about five or six other small businesses. Locals know Christi and her staff by name and often find their orders ready when they arrive. With booster seats hidden in the corner and mostly kin behind the cash register, Christi’s screams family-friendly.
But the real story behind this hidden treasure is how the small-town southern diner has stayed true to its character since the 1950s.
The joint was formerly Shorty’s Hamburgers, owned by the Clemmons family of Bellmead. The Clemmons passed away soon after opening the shop in the 50s, leaving their children to take over for the time being. Ed and Janis Hill were friends of the family from church, and when they heard the Clemmons weren’t interested in maintaining ownership, they took a leap of faith and bought it. The Hills had three children; when they bought the burger joint they decided to name it after the only one still living at home, Christi (now Christi Allison.)
“Back then, [the restaurant] was doing 40 pounds of hamburger meat a day; now we run around 75, but we’ve never changed much of anything,” Allison said. “My daddy always said, ‘Never make anything big; keep it simple.’”
When they opened, you could buy hamburgers for only a dollar, but not much else has changed at this southern diner. It still serves the same menu items and many of the same customers. Before college, Christi worked afternoons, weekends and summers flipping burgers. She loved meeting the customers and working for her parents, but swore that she would never make it a career.
“My daddy always said, ‘You don’t wanna be flippin’ burgers for the rest of your life,’ and I would say, ‘No!’” Allison jokes.
After high school at Connally, Allison went to school to become an X-ray technician, but soon found the medical field was not for her. She finished her degree in business, got married and finally decided in 1996 that Christi’s Hamburgers was more than just her parents’ dream. It was home. She says she has never considered expanding. To her, it isn’t about the money; she just wants to serve the community she’s grown up in.
With the same get-it-done attitude her parents had, Allison arrives at the shop four hours before opening at 10 a.m. to prepare for the day. The meat is freshly ground each day and she prepares all of the trimmings herself, chopping each tomato slice by hand.
“I don’t do any packaged stuff, and I don’t cut any corners,” Allison said.
She also employs several of the same women her parents did. Christi’s veteran employee, Margaret Skains, has been working by her side for 17 years. Born and raised in Bellmead, she was in high school when the shop was still Shorty’s. At the time, she was working at Wimpee’s Hamburgers down the road, which held a Sunday men’s group led by several men (including Ed Hill) in town.
“We were all tied up like family, everybody in this town,” Skains said. “When Christi was getting married I got hired on part time. I’ve been here ever since.”
Skains isn’t the only one who feels like Christi’s Hamburgers is home. Kay Morgan is a customer-turned-employee who has been coming to Christi’s for over 16 years. When her granddaughter was diagnosed with Leukemia, Christi’s parents supported the family in every way they could.
“When we lost her, I was at a loss. I had quit my job to take care of her, so me in. They haven’t thrown me out yet,” Morgan said, laughing. “They’re all-around good people; you won’t find a person to say a bad word about the whole family.”
Together, Christi and her crew know almost every face that comes through the door and do their best to support the local community. In fact, Christi’s only form of advertisement comes from sponsoring little league and football teams in the area. Word of mouth is the way they have always attracted new customers.
If asked, Christi would say her greatest accomplishment isn’t keeping the diner in business, but making her parents proud.
“Most people have problems one way or another with their parents,” Allison said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
Christi calls out to you to “come on back now” as you close the door behind you. The smell of greasy burgers and buttery buns follows you out the door. It’s unassuming, a moment frozen in time that tells a good story and serves an even better burger.