3749 E. Indian School Road • chicagohamburger.com
If you thought the small white building on the southeast corner of 38th St. and Indian School was called Windy City Sliders, you’d be wrong – kind of. Chicago Hamburger Co., home of that well-known dish, has been in business for over 30 years, and Owner Bob Pappanduros attributes the longevity to the love of his food, the love of his crew, and love for that windy city.
Is it safe to assume you’re originally from Chicago?
Well, one of us has to be. Otherwise, we might be accused of fraud!
I came here in 1982. I knew I wanted to move out west – I’d taken a few trips out this way, and I knew I didn’t want to be a flatlander anymore. I didn’t want to go back to the city, and I had a friend here. I had a girlfriend in Seattle at the time, so I thought about going there, but I didn’t know if that would work out, and I knew my buddy would – we’ve known each other since fifth grade – so I moved here.
Was anyone in your family in the restaurant industry?
I’m a Greek from Chicago.
So – yes?
My grandfather moved here from Greece in 1912 and had a restaurant in Greek Town. Then, when my dad got out of the Army, he worked for my grandfather and was also a pie delivery guy for several years. At the beginning of high school (for me) he bought a hot dog joint on the south side and owned that for 25 years. Three of us kids all worked there for years. So yeah, if you’re a Greek from Chicago, that’s the first line of business [laughs].
You mentioned pie delivery…
Yes! At the time, two companies in town delivered pies and cakes to all the restaurants. Dad had the downtown Chicago route. There was never not pie or cupcakes at our house.
What was the first thing you remember cooking?
It’s not really cooking – opening a can of Franco-American spaghetti. I used to keep a stash in my closet because there were five of us kids total, so when I was working, if I had some money, I’d buy those and stash them.
The first thing I actually cooked – besides grilling – my dad took some Chinese cooking classes, so I’d cook sweet and sour pork with him.
Where was your first job?
Cooking in the bowling alley when I was 15. I worked for my dad until college. I told myself repeatedly that I’d never work in a restaurant again. I didn’t like the hours. My friends were out having fun, and I was working weekends. So I went to college, and after three months, I got a job in a kitchen [laughs].
I cooked through college and came out here with my degree in psychology and sociology – which didn’t get me far regarding employment. I needed money, and once you’re a cook, you can always find a job. I started working at a high-end dinner place on Scottsdale and Shea. Then I worked for Big 4 restaurants. The Big 4 was really popular in the 80s. Everything they touched was gold. It’s kind of like what Sam Fox is now.
I worked as a food and beverage manager for a bit. I had never had a front-of-the-house job before, and I still ran it from the kitchen. I got in an argument with the owner and walked in the house at two in the afternoon, and my wife at the time was like, ‘you’re home early,’ and I said, ‘yeah, I think I just quit my job.’ At that point, I decided I wanted to do this for myself or get the hell out of the industry.
I’ve cooked for four people, and I’ve cooked for 3,000; the difference is the people you have working with you. I knew I wanted a small staff, and I wanted to go back to, well, comfort.
How long has Chicago Hamburger Co. been around?
The building has been here since the 70s. It was Pete’s Red Hots before it was Chicago. The guys I bought it from, around 1979, turned it into Chicago Hamburger Co., and I’ve owned it since 1989 – 33 years.
I happened to luck out. The previous owner was totally burned out and wanted out of the industry. I was looking, and he was looking to sell. I came in here, and you could tell they’d stopped caring about the place, but they had a decent following. I got rid of a few things – beer, boxing and wrestling off the TVs – stuff to change the place’s reputation.
How did you come up with the cuisine?
There are a thousand places in Chicago that are exactly like mine. Beef, dogs and burgers – Chicago style. This isn’t different aside from the sliders, which were on the menu when I bought the place. Now, because I’m a really smart, college-educated guy who has been in the restaurant industry for a long time, the first thing I was going to do was take the sliders off of the menu.
The first day I opened, I was working the register and noticed that most people ordered sliders. So I thought, ‘okay, I’m an idiot – the sliders stay.’ They were and are our identification. People didn’t even know we were called Chicago Hamburger Co. – everyone thought it was called Windy City Sliders. We sell two to 400 a day.
I’m not reinventing anything here. We make a lot of our own stuff, but I’m putting out standard Chicago fare with a couple of ‘Arizona’ add-ons.
To what do you attribute the popularity of Chicago Hamburger Co.?
It’s comfort food. Back in Chicago, people eat this stuff every day. We’re in a good price range. At this point, though, what’s carried me is my team. My ‘newest’ employee has been with me for 16 years. My son worked for me for 10 years and through college. My daughter helped me out last summer.
But really, it’s the consistency of my team and my product. I’ve got customers that have been coming here for 20, 30 years. Regulars who order the same thing, who I see two or three times a week. This kind of business is built on regulars. If I see them once, it’s our job to turn them into people who want to come back.
What do you love most about working in this industry?
I’m a social person and a blue-collar guy. I run everything – the paperwork, the payroll, bookkeeping – but really, I spend most of my time prepping, cooking and cashiering. That part, I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve adjusted my hours accordingly, and that comes back to my staff.
I’ve had people describe this place as a Cheers without the booze. We’re a neighborhood place. We know a ton of people by name. I love the friendships I’ve made. And, I met my wife here. I’d already known her for five years, she’d been a customer here, but we were both in-between marriages at the time. Strawberry shake and sliders, and the rest is history.
What’s the toughest part?
Business and stress level – we’ve been through three recessions and covid. There are ebbs and flows that create financial stress. It doesn’t leave when you go home. Part of the reason I’ve had my staff for so long is that I never cut hours. Bills don’t change, so I never cut labor.
I’d love to be a five-day operation and have full weekends, but Saturday is the busiest day of the week. I’d like to have the same schedule as all the other workin’ folks. But I don’t work nights anymore, and we don’t work on Sundays. That change happened 25 years ago and was one of the best I’ve made.
What is one item you find yourself using in the kitchen all the time?
I have a different one for you: music. And that’s thanks to covid. I always played music during prep time, but during business hours, I had the televisions on sports. Actually, at first, it was headline news, but then things got a little crazy, and I said, ‘enough of this noise,’ so then it was sports. But when covid hit and there were no sports to show, I turned the sound off and put music on – I’m all over in my tastes, but usually it’s a Santa Fe station run by a bunch of old hippies.
Any funny stories from your time in the industry?
One of my first managers was this big, burly Texan guy named Dave. He had the quickest wits I’ve ever known. Back then, a couple of times a year, you’d get a quick change artist – they try to confuse the cashier and leave with more money than they started with. It was early in the day, Dave was at the register, and the customer had money spread out on the counter. So, I say, ‘Dave!’ He doesn’t even look at me, just holds his hand up and says, ‘I got this, chief.’ I watched them go back and forth a few times, and when the customer left, Dave said, ‘I think I took him for $10,’ and sure enough, we were $10 over that night [laughs].
Your kids have helped out in the restaurant. Will they follow in your footsteps?
Not if I have anything to do with it [laughs]. It’s a good job to have and a good way to make money, but for the same reasons I didn’t want to stay in it, I don’t want them in it. It takes up too much of your personal life. Cole didn’t have a passion for this. He works for Vanguard and has his Masters in finance. I mean, I wouldn’t stop them if it’s what they really wanted to do.
When you’re not here, what are you doing?
Four days a week, I’m in a hockey rink. My daughter plays in an all-girls hockey league called the Arizona Kachinas. The rink is in Mesa, and since we’re the only all-girls program, we have to travel to play other teams. We actually started at Arcadia Ice! That’s what I’m doing most of the time. I play in a neighborhood band, but we don’t play outside of a couple of parties among friends. I played softball for years, too.
What’s your favorite thing to cook outside of work?
I have two. First, smoking meat or seafood and Cajun food. I worked at this place in Scottsdale that did a lot of Cajun, which taught me and solidified my love for it.
What’s next for Bob Pappanduros?
My goal is to be done working in a restaurant when Sophie, my daughter, is out of high school. I won’t officially be done working, but I want to let go of the load of owning my own business. I want my weekends [laughs].