Susie Reimer & The Humdinger

susie-reimer-tired

Long hours and hard work have taken their toll on Susie Reimer. She’s managed to keep her small business afloat for 35 years, but now faces great uncertainty as she considers retirement. (Photo by Krystyna Wentz-Graff, The Oregonian/OregonLive)

By George Rede

This is Portland Burger Week and the place should be packed at the lunch hour on a weekday. Sadly, it isn’t.

When I arrive at the Humdinger Drive-In just before noon Monday, I pull into an empty parking lot and glimpse a darkened restaurant interior. With its yellow-themed exterior and old-school menu, this little burger stand has been a neighborhood landmark on Southwest Barbur Boulevard for more than 30 years.

You may know about the Humdinger. I wrote a lengthy news feature a year ago about the business and its do-it-all owner, Susie Reimer. The front-page story resonated with readers of The Oregonian/OregonLive like few others I’ve written.

(If you missed it, here’s a link to the story and Krystyna Wentz-Graff’s marvelous photographs.)

Hard work, long hours not enough as retirement nears for Portland burger stand owner

front page - humdinger

Susie was 27, a high school dropout and the divorced mother of two young sons when she bought the place from the original owner. She had no experience and no business knowledge, but she worked hard behind the grill, ran the cash register and maintained the property — even painting the parking stripes and resurfacing the parking lot. But at 63, she is weary after 35 years of work and not alone in worrying about how she’ll get by.

“Many who make up America’s aging labor force are heading to retirement after a lifetime of work. Susie, like an increasing number of baby boomers, has no nest egg and no clear path to retirement.

She believed in the American Dream, that if she served great food and kept her customers happy, she’d make a good living and maybe even have something to pass along to her children.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Recently, I learned the story won two awards in regional and statewide journalism contests:

— Third place for Business Reporting from the Pacific Northwest Society of Professional Journalists.

— Third place for Best Feature Story (Personality) from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

Relatively small potatoes, I know, but the awards were nonetheless satisfying, validating the effort I’d put into telling Susie’s story with care and context.

I took a buyout offer from my former employer at the end of the year, so I haven’t done any professional reporting for months. I also hadn’t been back to the Humdinger since late December. With the city’s diners celebrating Portland Burger Week Aug. 8-13, I decided to pay a visit to Susie and get an update.

***

The weather was uncharacteristically gloomy. The sky was gray and cloudy, and the outdoor tables and chairs were still moist with condensation from that morning’s rain.

At 11:45 a.m., my car was the only one in the parking lot. Susie’s husband, Gordon, now 76 and still working the cash register and counter, had just opened the restaurant and was schlepping things inside. Susie arrived a few minutes later, a lighted cigarette in hand, and immediately began tidying up, collecting twigs and leaves from around the outdoor seating area.

“I saw your name in the paper recently,” she said, tossing a handful of greenery over a wire fence.

“Really? What for?”

“It was something about you winning an award.”

“You saw that? I’m glad you did.”

Part of the reason for my visit was to thank Susie for letting me tell her story in such detail, warts and all. There would have been no awards — heck, no story — without her cooperation, I told her.

There had been a spike in business after the story was published last August. Customers crammed into the tiny space and filled the tip jar for several days. Someone made an offer to buy the business late in the year, but nothing had panned out and things had returned to normal by year’s end.

I knew that summer was typically the busiest, most profitable time of the year at the Humdinger. But business recently has been just “OK, not great,” Susie said. She was unaware of Portland Burger Week.

(Click on images to view captions.)

From noon to 1 p.m. that day, I was one of five customers. A young guy in a baseball cap and a thirty-something couple sat at two of the four vinyl booths, and I claimed a third. After the others left, a woman came in and placed an order to go.

The expansive handwritten menu, already featuring children’s “fun platters,” garden burgers and 1/4 pound kielbasa hot dogs, advertised yet another item: whole Cornish game hens with gravy.

My lunch was delicious. I chowed down on a quarter-pound deluxe with crinkle-cut fries, accompanied by a root beer float. The burger had the usual lettuce and pickles, but also slices of yellow tomatoes grown in Susie’s yard. That was just one of a trio of nice touches I noticed.

— Each order came with hard candies handmade by Susie.

— Outside, a handwritten sign encouraged visitors to take free squash grown in planters on the Humdinger property.

On previous visits, I’ve seen people settle in with their meals at the brightly colored picnic tables lining one side of the parking lot. Not this time. The tables and benches were wet and all the table umbrellas were closed up.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Neighboring businesses, with their weathered signs, gave off a tired vibe. Next door to the Humdinger is a discount tobacco store. One block north, across Southwest 19th Avenue, there’s an old-school family restaurant, a used car lot, a barber and beauty shop, and a shuttered typewriter repair store.

At 1:15 p.m, a red pickup pulled into the Humdinger lot, bearing the sixth customer of the day.

I asked Susie what she’d like to see happen in the next year or two. She sighed.

“I would like to sell the place and see if we can get by,” she said. “I turned 64 in July, so I’m another year closer to Medicare.”

susie-reimer hands

The hands of a woman who has cooked, chopped, cleaned, painted and resurfaced her asphalt parking lot for more than three decades.

A couple from Nevada had recently stopped in and said they were interested in buying the place but nothing had come of that either, Susie said. People talk but don’t follow up, she said. It happens frequently.

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “Things can happen. You never know.”

Photographs: George Rede

***

Tomorrow: Rachel Lippolis, U.S. lags on maternity leave

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Susie Reimer & The Humdinger

    • Michelle, thanks for your comment. Susie has succeeded where so many others have failed but I’m saddened that her circumstances haven’t changed much. The burdens she has carried are all too evident. She still makes a good product — a burger as tasty as any — but it’s the lack of marketing savvy that’s killing her. Hard to do, if not impossible, when you don’t own a computer and can’t connect with potential customers.

      If and when you open your own restaurant, I’m sure you’ll do your due diligence. Good luck.

  1. Thanks for the update on Susie, George. I was glad that your last story gained her some business, but saddened that it did not last. I have no doubt there are many, many struggling like Susie does every day. So much potential in this country … so many struggle because of so much that’s not working in America. You just really want people to get a break once in a while, and the whole concept of “if you work hard you’ll get ahead” just is no longer possible. I really do believe the American Dream is dead.

    • I appreciate your interest in the story and your empathy toward Susie. She’s done a lot of things right over the years but also a lot of things wrong. I too would like to see people like her catch a break. I don’t want to believe the American Dream is dead, but I would say it’s going to be harder to achieve unless a person is willing to invest time and effort into education or a marketable skill. I’m all for more apprenticeships and job training programs.

      I also think people need to have realistic expectations in view of soaring housing prices and increased competition in the changing labor market.

  2. I missed the first story, but great that you went back to follow it up. It’s funny that there are people who want to retire, but i often see others for whom work is all they know and they don’t want it to stop. Perhaps it’s the kind of work you do. Physical labor is hard. If you are a writer, engineer or artist doing creative projects, it’s probably easier to keep working indefinitely. There are also people who don’t have financial struggles, but their life feels unfulfilled because they have never had meaningful professional connections or rewards. I hope Susie gets her dream of a financially stable life of leisure and comfort.

    • You’re right about the nature of work. Physical labor takes a toll on the body and, I’m sure, the spirit. Poor Susie is worn out but stuck doing the same thing. Non-physical labor allows people in creative professions to work longer, according to several pieces I’ve read lately.

      It’s a challenge to find the right balance between financial reward and professional accomplishment. The tipping point is different for each person depending how much they value one versus the other. I feel fortunate to have experienced enough of both. I too hope Susie finds stability and comfort once she closes her doors for good.

  3. I just loved this piece, George. From my mom’s side, I come from a family of mom and pop restaurant owners–ramen shops in Japan actually. I could relate to the grueling nature of Susie and Gordon’s chosen path, because I saw how my Japanese aunts and uncles worked tirelessly every day behind a cramped, unairconditioned space. Your piece deserved the accolades it received. It was a poignant reminder that human elements and stories exist literally everywhere.

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