Business started slowly at Charley's Old Fashion Hamburgers in January 1992 -- so slowly that owner Charley Bell kept his job as a truck driver, working at the restaurant when he could.
But in August, Star-Telegram Eats Beat columnist Bud Kennedy told his readers about "a new diner in Fort Worth's Westcliff neighborhood [that] promises old-fashioned hamburgers." That same day, the small shack was mobbed, and a new local favorite was born.
"I couldn't run to the store fast enough," Bell says. "I didn't think it was going to do all that well. But from there, it just took off."
Nearly 20 years later, people are still spreading the word about the place's juicy burgers, delicious onion rings and homemade lemonade, powering the little shack that could to victory in DFW.com's Readers' Bracket of the 2011 Battle of the Burgers. Charley's defeated another Fort Worth legend, Fred's Texas Cafe, in the finale. (Charley's also did quite well with the judges, advancing to the Final Four in that bracket before losing in a tight matchup against runner-up Chop House.)
Bell says that word of mouth -- and things like the Battle of the Burgers -- help raise the Charley's profile and bring in new waves of business. But it's his regulars that keep the grill sizzling.
"I've got a lot of people I see every week," he says. "You see 'em pull up, you know what to throw on the grill, you know what they're gonna get. I've had people call up and say: 'Well, this is Martha. I'll be there in 15 minutes.' So we knew what to do, and she knew how much money to bring, right down to the nickel."
Charley's offers a classic Fort Worth experience, beginning with its vintage burger stand exterior that has been on Old Granbury Road since 1953. It was a converted mobile home, and the kitchen still stands in an 8-by-20 trailer. Aside from a small dining area and some outside picnic tables, Charley's hasn't changed much in 20 years.
In 1999, things were going so well at the original location that Bell opened another Charley's on the Weatherford Traffic Circle. But months after it opened, Bell's second son, Matthew, was killed in a traffic accident in Dallas. Bell says it knocked the wind out of him. He became depressed, gaining so much weight that he could hardly walk, leaving the operation of the restaurants to his staff.
A third Charley's opened in 2002 on Montgomery Street, but after it opened, the Granbury Road store started struggling; nearby road construction caused business to drop to nearly nothing. Both the additional locations are closed now, but Bell doesn't regret opening them.
"If it hadn't been for those other two stores, this one wouldn't have survived," Bell says. "It took everything I could get my hands on and sell to keep it alive."
He gives a lot of credit to Patrick Lighthart, who has been with him for 16 years, for keeping the Granbury shop running during all the problem years. In February of this year, though, Bell decided to become much more active in running the original location again.
"My friends, my family, everybody had been telling me for years, 'Without you, there isn't a store,'" Bell says. "My son [says] 'Y'know, it's just a lot smoother with you there.'"
During a busy Monday lunch hour, all the tables in the small dining room were taken, but Virginia Williams, a retired schoolteacher, grabbed a seat with a nice couple and waited for her takeout order. She was greeted so heartily by the staff that you could easily spot her as a regular.
"It's a very good place," says Williams, who has been eating at Charley's for about 10 years. "It's clean; they're nice.... It's one of the nicest places to eat, but what keeps me coming back is the hamburgers are good. They fix them the way I want them fixed -- they put mustard on one side and mayonnaise on the other."
Bell says he doesn't have a "signature burger," but it's easy to contend that he actually has more than one, including the Project X, a cheeseburger featuring a Tabasco-soaked patty topped with jalapeños. The Project X was inspired by the Death Burger at College Station's Dixie Chicken, another burger with Tabasco and jalapeños.
"My wife was still cooking. And I'd say, 'Do this.' Or, 'Fiddle around with this.' I'm the testing department," he says with a laugh, patting his belly. "We played around, made maybe a half-dozen different burgers, and we started giving them away to customers who'd come in. Everybody said, 'Oh yeah, that's wonderful, that's great!' So we put it on the menu." The "Project X" name came from all the experimentation.
No wonder Charley's is the people's champion.
"I get a lot of people saying, 'Well, you oughtta do this, you oughtta do that,'" says Bell, who is happy to have suggestions. "But I like all my burgers, or we wouldn't make 'em."
And he likes being back where he belongs, doing what he does best: working hard. He doesn't cook as often as he used to, but he runs the business and makes his presence known through the burgers that he and his wife developed -- and by being, well, Charley.
"I try to sneak up to the door every now and then and say 'Howdy, people,'" he says. "But I'm not a politician. I'll never make a preacher. I don't do well with talking to people. But I need to be here for it to work right.
"It says 'Charley's' out front. It doesn't say 'Maybe.'"