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.)
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.”
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