September 27, 2003
Great Plains -- Page A03

A Legacy of Sliders
Salina restaurant has developed national reputation for mini burgers

Beccy Tanner
The
Wichita Eagle

 

Sawlshon "Socks" Murdoch has worked at the Cozy Inn for less than a year, but he knows all about the restaurant's legacy.

Photos by The Associated Press

Cozy Inn Burger employee Socks Murdoch (left) passes a bag of miniature burgers, called "Sliders," to a customer.

"I have people who come in and want my autograph," Murdoch said. "They'll come in and start videotaping me. And then they'll watch exactly what I do."

What the 24-year-old Murdoch does is sling enough hamburgers and grilled onions all day to go home smelling exactly like one of those Cozy burgers, which he says is great.

For 81 years, the Cozy Inn -- a tiny restaurant in downtown Salina -- has been turning out one thing: hamburgers, affectionately known as "aromatic sliders."

They are made the same way they were decades ago, and they are made only one way. There is no such thing as a "cheeseburger" in Cozy Inn vernacular.

 

Cozy Inn Burger manager Larry Jackson grills up a few dozen sliders. Jackson, who says he makes between 75 to 175 dozen sliders daily, was a regular customer at the 81-year-old burger stand since he was a kid and worked behind the counter during his teenage years.

Using only fresh meat and raw onions -- nothing frozen or premade -- the staff at the Cozy sells 1,500 to 2,500 of the miniature burgers a day. On holidays and weekends, those numbers rise to 2,500 to 3,000 a day.

Each burger is cooked on the same cast-iron grill the Cozy has used since it opened in 1922. Word has it that in the 1940s the owners tried to put in a new grill. Customers demanded the old one be returned to use.

As the years have gone by, the fame of the Cozy burgers has spread nationally.

"They are not fast food, and they've withstood the test of time," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. "It's like going to Grandma's. You know what you are going to get when you get there. It's like a security blanket. Even if you don't go often, you know it's there."

The restaurant has always boasted the same six porcelain bar stools, counter and wood cupboards.

Recently, Cozy management decided to add a walk-up window and picnic tables for overflow crowds.

Loyal customers aren't worried about the changes so long as the burgers stay the same.

Ron Vawter of Salina said some of his earliest memories are of walking with older cousins to the Cozy, getting a bag of burgers and walking around, reaching into the sack and eating them one by one. That was when he was 3 years old. Now 55, he says he goes at least once a week.

In their first few decades of existence, Cozy burgers sold for a nickel each, or six for a quarter. Now, those burgers are 80 cents each.

In eight decades, the restaurant has gone through only two sets of owners.

The Cozy burgers have been touted by Martha Stewart's Living magazine. Fans swap memories over the Internet. Former Kansans order batches and have them mailed across the nation; the restaurant promises to have them frozen, packed on ice and delivered within 24 hours.

Devoted fans of the burgers include Kansas politicians, Hollywood celebrities and, of course, just plain working people.

"There are so many stories about this place," said Max Holthaus, co-owner of the Cozy and also manager of the Salina Country Club. "People write us telling their experiences and they range anywhere from tearjerkers to belly laughs -- every kind of story you can imagine has happened at the Cozy Inn.

"There is the story of a Wichita car dealer who picked up a Jaguar in Nebraska and some Cozy burgers on his way back -- then had trouble selling the car because the smell of grilled onions and burgers had replaced that new-car smell.

"For me, I feel like I am the keeper of this thing. We hope it stays around for a long time."