Bomber Burger owner celebrates 20 years
Bomber Burger is not a lunch stop for the easily offended.
But the Wichita burger restaurant, which frequently lands on local and state-wide lists of best burgers, doesn’t deal in indelicacies as a gimmick.
It’s just who owner Chris Rickard is, he says: a straight shooting, expletive tossing, Miller Light-swilling, Pittsburgh Steelers loving 45-year-old, who in junior high was ironically dubbed “Mr. Compassion.”
If you don’t like it, he doesn’t much care.
As he celebrates his 20th year of owning the restaurant, a no-frills 800-square-foot spot at the corner of 47th Street and Southeast Boulevard, Rickard says that he’s discovered that most people know what they’re getting themselves into when they venture in for one of his three-quarter pound burgers, each hand-formed and grilled by Rickard himself as his customers watch.
And most people seem to like his extra saltiness, for whatever reason, he said. Even if one of his 20-some table seats are open, he’s noticed, people will frequently wait for a front-row seat at the bar so they can engage with Rickard – or at least watch him engage with those who brave enough to poke at him.
“For every person I’ve ever (ticked) off down here and they’ve said ‘I’ll never come back,’ it creates a very interesting story that a few dozen other people enjoy hearing, and then they tell a few dozen other people and it gets a snowball rolling downhill.”
Just try to get a seat on a busy Saturday, and you’ll understand the other appeal: giant, juicy burgers slow-grilled on a well-seasoned flattop and carefully crafted by a chef – also the restaurant’s sole employee - who makes most everything from scratch and openly disparages his competitors who don’t.
“People like that it’s not a franchise,” he said. “I choose the quality of the product over cash. Maybe that’s just stupid of me. I’ve had a couple of people ask to franchise, but I’m so concerned about the quality, I don’t even want another location because what am I gonna do? Clone myself?”
Son of a burger man
Chris Rickard grew up in Mulvane, the oldest of three siblings and the son of a hard-working, always traveling over-the-road trucker.
In 1985, when Rickard was 13, his father, Paul, decided his trucking days were done. Bomber Burger, a honky-tonk bar that also sold decent burgers, was for sale. The restaurant/bar had been around since 1952, and Paul Rickard decided he’d see if he could run it.
Rickard started helping his father at the bar, and together, they built a new bar and replaced the flooring. It was Rickard’s job to cut the potatoes for the fries and fetch beer for his dad’s famous Pitch tournaments, which would fill the restaurant’s back room on Saturday nights.
After graduating from high school in Mulvane, Rickard went to college and decided to become a physician’s assistant. By 1997, he was a semester away from starting his clinicals and was managing the restaurant.
One day, his dad didn’t show up for the lunch rush. When things slowed down, Rickard asked a restaurant regular to watch the place while he went to check on him.
“I just figured he’d probably tied one on the night before or something,” Rickard said. “But I go in the house and… it’s incredibly difficult to argue with a corpse”
Paul Rickard had died at age 56 of cardiomyopathy.
Chris closed the restaurant after his father’s death but only for about a week. He’d always loved to cook and was leaning toward taking the place over, but he was so close to his physician’s assistant certification.
He had mixed feelings, he said. But he decided to keep his father’s restaurant going.
“I think what really solidified me is I was down here cleaning and remodeling after I’d made the decision, and this old dude pulls up and starts with, ‘Sorry to hear about your dad. So when’s it for sale?’ I said, ‘It’s not. I’m gonna run it.’ He said, ‘I’ll be back in a couple of months when you’re out of business.’”
Rickard’s face reddens and his jaw clenches at the memory.
“I have not missed a day of work since,” he said.
No filter. No apologies.
When he inherited Bomber Burger, Rickard decided to make it his own, and he had some new ideas.
“Back in the day, it was more of a honky-tonk bar where you could catch a burger when you were about to stumble out,” he said. “After dad passed, I wanted to turn it into more of a hamburger restaurant where you could have a beer while you’re eating a burger.”
That’s not all he changed.
Rickard also increased the size of his burger patties, and he did it several times over the years.
“When dad was alive, they were a half pound, which was pretty substantial. Then other places came up with half pounders, so I went with two-thirds. That lasted for over a decade, then I saw other places had two-thirds and I thought, nah, I’ll go with three quarters.”
His father was known for his sometimes abrasive personality, Rickard said, but his own is several heaping tablespoons saltier, and he has no filter. Filters annoy him. Political correctness aggravates him. His firmly held political beliefs – “I’m a conservative libertarian,” he said – have him on the outs with at least one family member.
On a typical day, Rickard can be found behind the grill at the restaurant donning his Steelers stocking cap, sipping Miller light from a giant glass Steelers mug, and searing burgers while simultaneously offering searing commentary on politics, sports, life.
Signs posted all over his restaurant indicate that guns are not only allowed but welcome inside, and hand-written signs let KU fans and non-Steelers fans know exactly where they stand.
Rickard also is famous for a professionally printed sign, which hangs in a prominent spot on the side of the building and invites competitors Wendy’s and Spangles to “kiss our a**.”
His customers get his brash sense of humor, Rickard said, and he’s earned lots of loyal fans and friends over the years – police officers, service men from nearby McConnell, aircraft workers.
His wife, for whom “The Boss” burger on the menu was named, gets him, too he says. But she worries. The morning of the interview for this story, she sternly warned him not to say anything stupid.
“And then she shook her head and said, ‘You’re going to,’” he said with a laugh.
He didn’t care.
20 years: tornadoes and attempted murderers
Although 20 years have gone by quickly, Rickard said, they haven’t been without drama.
The restaurant has been struck twice by South-side-loving tornadoes, most recently in 2012, when Rickard had to close for a week when the entire Oaklawn neighborhood was without power.
Then there was the “attempted murder” in 2010, and Rickard will show you the scar that runs from his left ear to underneath his chin.
His friend, a Sedgwick County Sheriff’s deputy, was having lunch at the counter on that September day when a guy at the end of the bar became unruly and started telling racist jokes.
Rickard told him to “shut up, we don’t do that here,” and went to the restroom.
When he returned, he saw the man smash a giant glass beer mug over the deputy’s head. Rickard chased the man to the parking lot to confront him, and when it was all over, his ear had been nearly sliced off by the broken mug handle still in the man’s hand, and a gash in his face required 97 stitches.
“I was at work the next day,” he said. “My wife thought I was an idiot.”
For all his bravado, though, Rickard also has a soft side, though he doesn’t like to admit it.
He gushes about his wife. He tells stories about his decrepit wiener dog, who he daily diapers and helps into his wheel chair. He’s an obsessive hand washer. He gives generously to charity and has coached and sponsored kids’ football teams. He has a big vocabulary and an easy, though frequently vulgar, back-and-forth with his many loyal food and beer vendors.
He loves getting press, and he loves loves loves winning random burger awards.
And he knows his limits, he insists. Not every customer gets the Bomber Burger treatment.
“The way I play it is if you come in and it looks like you just left church service and you don’t give off the vibe at all of being a smart ass or wanting any feedback, I just take your order and cook,” he said. “But if you are one to poke the bear a little bit, the bear pokes back, and I am very astute poking back.”
What: A longtime hole-in-the wall burger spot that’s been owned for 20 years by outspoken owner Chris Rickard
Where: 4860 S. Clifton Ave., 316-522-6291
Menu: Three-quarter pound, slow-grilled burgers with a variety of gourmet toppings, fries, okra, cold beer, football
Payment: Cash only
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays