Powers Hamburgers: A Fort Wayne, Indiana, Treasure (Just Like Major Frank Burns)
Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, J. G. Wallace, a former food-service professional, avid cook, devout foodie, and newspaper food writer, contacted AHT about Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "Powers is an often overlooked player on the slider scene," he wrote. "They come very close to Hackensack's White Manna, and I am qualified to say that since I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey. My wife is from Fort Wayne and we now live 20 miles outside of Fort Wayne. I went to Powers and got some great pics, and enjoyed what many locals call onion burgers with meat. Would you be interested in a write-up?" Of course we were, and here it is. Thank you, J. G.! Burgermeisters, have at it!
1402 S Harrison Street, Fort Wayne IN 46802; (at West Brackenridge Street; map); 260-422-6620
The Short Order: The approximately 2-ounce sliders are generously topped with grilled onions and optional American cheese (nothing else), and served on a potato roll.
Price: Hamburger, $0.85 (double, $1.60); cheeseburger, $0.95 (double, $1.80)
By J. G. Wallace | What I am about to write may seem like burger blasphemy to some of AHT's readers, but as a New Jersey native, burger fanatic, and obsessive "foodie," I'm prepared to say Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, Indiana compares very well to White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey, both in terms of the actual slider, atmosphere, and overall experience. Is it possible, you ask, for there to be a Nirvana-like hamburger experience in a mid-sized Midwestern city best known to many Americans as the home of M*A*S*H's Major Frank Burns? To be fair, Fort Wayne also hosted the first night baseball game under lights, was the former home of the Detroit Pistons—then called the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons—and once had a mayor named Harry Baals (you can't make this stuff up).
More Than 60 Years of History
Before you say it's not possible for a Hoosier slider shack to be compared to one of America's best and most famous burgers, just talk a walk with me to 1402 South Harrison Street in downtown Fort Wayne. It's in the old downtown business district, across the street from the U.S. District Federal Courthouse. Over the years many businesses have moved away from the center city as the city expanded, but Powers Hamburgers has stood steadfast since 1940. The small white Art Deco style building with black trim and black and white awnings hasn't changed much since it opened. The Powers Hamburger story begins in that same period of burger history that spawned places like White Manna, along with White Mana in Jersey City, White Castle, and the slider in general.
Powers may have all of those places beat in terms of longevity, since the Powers family opened their first restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan in 1935. Four brothers: Leo, Clell, Harold "Jim", and Dale Powers built that first hamburger joint by hand. By 1938 Dale Powers had moved to Port Huron, Michigan and opened a second Powers. The burgers grew in popularity and Dale soon opened more stores in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Further building their burgeoning burger empire, Leo moved back to Northeast Indiana where the brothers grew up, and in 1940 opened the Fort Wayne location. In 1947, Leo opened a second Fort Wayne store in an industrial area.
In 1980, Leo's son Rolin purchased the business, and Rolin opened a third location on a busy commercial strip in 1983. That store closed in 1989, at which time Rolin was diagnosed with cancer. Rolin died in 1990, and in 2004 the second location closed, leaving the iconic downtown restaurant as the only surviving Powers Hamburgers. The business was sold outside the family in 1999, but little has changed besides the opening hours. Instead of being open 24/7, it now operates six days a week, from early morning until 10 p.m.
The Making of an Onion Burger
As soon as you approach the building the smells of grilled onions and hamburgers waft toward you. Locals know that it's impossible to hide the fact that you had Powers for lunch—it's a "not safe for work," smell. People refer to them as onion burgers with meat for a reason: A recent plate of burgers averaged about 1/8 cup of seared onions on each burger. The dining experience is memorable, but so is the smell of onions in your hair for the rest of the day. I can't advise getting Powers to go—it's going to remain in your car for a week, and take-out just robs diners of the full Powers experience.
To really experience Powers you need to slide up to the tiny counter, which just has a handful of seats. There is one tiny booth tucked in a corner and a few stools line the outside wall, but it's really about the same size as White Manna. It's usually manned by a counterperson, who takes orders on a notepad, and a grill person, who has to deftly dance around his tiny domain and manage every order. The burgers are stored in a tiny reach-in refrigerator just to the grill person's left. They start out as tiny balls, perhaps two ounces each, before being smashed down on a layer of sizzling onions.
If you want cheese, they'll top the burgers with a small strip of yellow American cheese. The burgers are served on Aunt Millie's Potato Rolls, a local brand, but a good comparison to the Martin's Potato Rolls in Hackensack. If you want pickles, lettuce, or tomato, head for Burger King. Want fries with that? Sorry, there don't serve fries, but they do sell potato chips. The counter person will hand your order across the counter, along with squirt bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard. When you're done they tally your tab on paper and settle the bill. I doubt it's changed much since 1940; good, friendly service never goes out of style.
Powers offer burgers all the time and an additional breakfast menu in the mornings. Their Garbage Plate is a local favorite, but a topic for another website. They also offer a great homemade chili, Coney dogs (a Midwestern chili dog that has no relationship to Coney Island, but is a Detroit area Greek offering). I say stick with the basics. Four cheeseburgers is a safe place to start your journey, and at 95 cents each they are affordable. A hamburger will run you just 85 cents. Doubles are also offered and seem to achieve a better meat-to-onion ratio.
A Piece of New Jersey in Indiana
Powers used to have something else in common with White Manna when they were open all night. It was a late night destination for college kids, shift workers, and people who needed something in their stomachs after a night of drinking. It was memorable destination, and as I recall was usually pretty busy. I first heard about Powers from a friend from New Jersey who was attending Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne. When I made my first visit here I wasn't in town more than a few hours when we made our first Power's run.
My life's course would eventually run back towards Fort Wayne when I married a local girl in 1989. We had lived in New Jersey for 17 years but moved back to Indiana in 2006. I gave up real pizza, bagels, Taylor Pork Roll, good deli, and good Italian food, but I didn't have to give up my love of old fashioned sliders. If any of AHT's readers find themselves in "The Summit City," be sure to power up at Powers Hamburgers. Just don't be surprised when you have a case of burger déjà vu.