July 1, 2010

Wichita's NuWay Cafe turns 80

Crumbly is celebrating its 80th anniversary in Wichita today.

Crumbly is celebrating its 80th anniversary in Wichita today.

In an era when almost every novel and semi-novel culinary idea ends up franchised around the nation and the world, the loose-meat sandwich known as the NuWay is still the same sandwich born in Wichita during the Great Depression.

A word of caution, though: Don't dismiss it as a sandwich.

"It's an art, not a science," said Neal Stong, the owner of the five-store Wichita chain.

Stong's son, Chris, calls it a unique product that's easy to make.

"But it takes practice, and that's something we have a problem teaching people," he said. "It involves a lot of patience, and it involves practicing the craftsmanship of making the product the same way every time.

"It's easy to make the right way, but it's even easier to screw it up."

NuWay has a simple business model: A unique product, surrounded by homemade sides and refreshments.

And Neal Stong, after some aborted attempts to take Nu-Way to Kansas City and Hutchinson, sees no need to push expansion, franchising or any major growth.

"I've always just felt like I don't want anyone to ever say that there used to be a great hamburger place on West Douglas that Neal Stong owned, but now it's gone," Neal Stong said.

"We're owners, sure, but we're caretakers of a tradition, too. Tradition, quality and customer service are why we're still profitable."

Nu-Way tradition

Tom McEvoy opened the Nu-Way at 1416 W. Douglas on July 4, 1930 — the same building it is in today.

McEvoy's idea was a loose-meat, crumbly hamburger, cooked in a patented cooker with a formula McEvoy jealously guarded, like Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders.

"When Mr. McEvoy was here, he'd have people come in and look over the counter to see what it was," Neal Stong said. "I mean, in those days it was the McDonald's here.

"So he'd close the door, lock it up and run them off."

Finally, McEvoy caved to the pressure and embarked on a little early-day franchising, selling interested parties one of the patented cookers and a year's worth of hamburger wrap.

"None of them were ever successful," Neal Stong said.

McEvoy died in 1965 and passed the business to his wife, Helen, who ran it herself into the 1970s, opening and closing the store every day.

"But one night she came out of this door right here and someone hit her over the head and took all her money," Neal Stong said. "It scared her to death."

So a regular customer — Gene Friedman, a co-founder of the David's Department Store chain in Wichita and Neal Stong's boss — finally succeeded in buying her out.

"I decided to leave David's, and Gene talked me into buying in with him in 1981," Neal Stong said.

Then Stong acquired the entire chain in the 1990s, finalizing the purchase from an ailing Friedman before the David's co-founder's death in 1999.

Expansion and retraction

Neal Stong flares up at the mention of franchising.

"We never franchised," he said, proudly. "We never had more than five stores in Wichita, one in Hutchinson and two in Kansas City."

Quality control was a problem outside of Wichita, Neal Stong said.

"Our store in Hutchinson... the guy there wasn't using our meat," he said. "He wasn't making his own root beer with cane sugar; he was buying it from Pepsi. Basically, nothing was Nu-Way but the curly fries."

Same story in Kansas City, where the company closed the two stores after the original owner walked away.

"We just closed all of them up because we simply couldn't run them from out of town."

Nu-Way's adherence to tradition is unusual in the restaurant industry, said Cindy Claycomb, a marketing professor at Wichita State University. Restaurateurs with a unique project generally can't wait to franchise it.

"But in some companies that grow big, sometimes when they're successful it's because of those concepts, those consistencies," Claycomb said.

"When Ray Kroc started McDonald's, cleanliness was really important to him, and that led to their success. You knew that no matter where you went across the nation you got the same product and the same cleanliness, and when he died, they lost that and ran into problems."

Consistency of product is a major and expensive challenge, said Scott Redler, chief operating officer of Freddy's Frozen Custard.

"We value our brand very highly, and if we feel like a franchisee needs assistance, we put the resources into it. Based on our company documents, we control the product that goes into our restaurants," he said.

Nonetheless, a couple of new Nu-Way concepts have popped up — Nu-Way Express stores in the Newman University student union and in El Dorado operated by Tad Fugate.

"It's something Chris wants to pursue," Neal Stong said about franchising. "I don't want to. I'm at the age where I want to go south and play golf for the winter."

Allure of tradition

Wichitan John Downey has six decades under his belt as a loyal Nu-Way customer.

"I like them," he said firmly. "I like the taste of them. I like the ambiance of the place. I like the homemade aspect. I just like them."

"What he likes is the sauce running out of the bun," said Downey's wife, Sarah. "It's grease."

The Downeys visit Nu-Way at least twice a month.

"Now, if I really want to get my fix, I go to the Douglas store," John Downey said.

Downey first visited Nu-Way in the 1940s when his aunt worked as a carhop for the McEvoys.

The restaurant is a Downey family tradition — so much so that Neal Stong prepares a package of Nu-Ways that John takes to his sisters, who live in Denver.

Those two sisters, though, are moving back to Wichita.

"So you can figure that Nu-Way's business is going to go up," Sarah Downey said, laughing.

There may be some tweaks in the face of the newer Nu-Way stores, but don't expect the West Douglas location's appearance to change.

"This is the icon," Chris Stong said. "When a lot of people think Nu-Way, they grew up coming to this one. This is the place they brought their kids and their grandkids."

The menu traditions will remain.

"All of our products will continue to be fresh and made with the same quality Mr. McEvoy started with," Neal Stong said. "We're going to concentrate on the quality, the quantity and customer service, like Nu-Way always has."

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