Seasoned by decades of duty, the old grill was beginning to sizzle as Andrea (Howard) Windholz smashed small mounds of ground beef into patties and sprinkled them with chopped onions.
Outside, a customer wearing construction orange, snarfed an early lunch while soaking up a beautiful spring day.
Quiet was soon to wane, however, as meal time approached on the early-March morning at the Cozy Inn in downtown Salina.
Owner Steve Howard — Andrea’s father — noticed through the walk-up ordering window that customers were gathering outside.
“Better fill it up,” he said. That’s Cozy speak for jam the ancient cook top into full throttle for yet another lunch rush at 108 N. Seventh.
On a busy day, the grill will fry up to 55 Cozy Burgers every seven minutes or so — producing 1,700 of them daily from Memorial Day through the summer — requiring 800 pounds of ground beef a week.
The tiny restaurant with one entree and two other menu items — Cozy Burger, chips and soda — isn’t blessed with the amenities of other internationally-known eateries, yet it boasts 45,000 visitors a year, 90 percent of them travelers, some from one of up to 40 countries, Howard said.
With stool seating for six — in a mere 700 square feet of space,customers see only 192 square feet of it — a less-than-ideal location, and a pungent onion-esque aroma that can waft for blocks or stick to clothing, one might surmise a lack of appeal. But the diner’s sheer charm supplants those voids, Howard said, along with a rich history.
Google “best burgers in Kansas” and the Cozy Inn pops up first; at least it did March 3 at 5 p.m. It’s one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Cuisine, according to the Kansas Sampler Foundation. The Cozy has garnered loads of mentions on social media. Made fresh daily, Cozy Burgers covet global attention, and the inn has survived all the ups and downs of nearly a century in business.
A big birthday party is planned March 12 when the Cozy Inn reaches 100, with a ribbon cutting ceremony, a bouncy house, Hurts Donuts and commemorative T-shirts for sale, and drawings for prizes. “The 100th customer will receive up to 24 free Cozy Burgers,” Howard said. Festivities begin at 8:30 a.m.
Blessed with a sense of homespun marketing and imagination, intense work ethic, and a sincere passion for the fare, Howard has prospered in his 15 years of owning the eatery.
“It’s great being involved,” said the 59-year-old restauranteur. “Not many companies last 100 years. I take a lot of pride in that.”It’s a big miniature business with a huge heart, said Leslie Bishop, executive director of Salina Downtown Inc. “The Cozy Inn IS Downtown Salina,” she said. “It has survived economic downturns, construction, COVID, and it’s alive and going for 100 years. The Cozy is a landmark for downtown Salina. It’s a destination and an anchor.”
The owner since 2007, Howard is the outright boss who has turned every crumb into profit by massaging literally every aspect of the operation. He can man the grill and quality control, maintain supplies, clean, do most repairs — through savvy, mechanical prowess, common sense and innovation — while also greeting, welcoming and befriending customers, and melding marketing and promotions into most any action, including a claim that the little
building in haunted by ghosts who make messes after hours. He’s also a meticulous record keeper.
“I like to tell people these are the Hershey’s kisses of hamburgers,” he said. “You can get a bigger bite of burger, but you can’t get a bigger taste.”
There is even a jingle for the infamous aroma. Howard laughs off the comments and stories of lunchtime Cozy
bans from some downtown business owners and managers. In a way, the smell is a badge of honor, and a way to gauge demand. “The smell pays the bills, for sure,” he said.
It’s a scent that evokes thoughts of home and tradition, a special charm, said Max Holthaus, a former Cozy Inn co-owner. “Somebody went into the Cozy Inn, sat down and ate. Then he got on a plane and flew to Denver to make a connecting flight to someplace else. While walking through a throng of people at the airport, he was tapped on a shoulder and a man said ‘Salina, you’ve been to Cozy,’ ” he said. “I’ve got lots of stories.”
In the early days of involvement, Holthaus noticed a negative reaction from tellers when he took daily deposits to a local bank. But visits to the drive-through were soon welcomed, he said, and the essence morphed into a smell of success.
The Cozy Inn chugged its way through a century, and won hearts of thousands. Stories abound.
“Some guy was on his death bed, and all he wanted was a Cozy at the end of his life,” Holthaus said. One local grandma made the same request on March 1, Howard said. A lady got married at the courthouse, and came over to the Cozy in her dress (with her new husband) for the reception,” Holthaus said.
While former Gov. Bill Graves served as Kansas Secretary of State, the Salina native often asked staff members to bring Cozy Burgers back to Topeka during their travels through north-central Kansas, Holthaus said, but it enraged officials at the state motor pool. “Bill Graves loved those Cozy Burgers,” Holthaus said.
Neither Howard nor his living predecessors, have any solid record of who owned the Cozy Inn when it opened in the spring of 1922, although one fan in an Aug. 1, Salina Journal story suggested the founding proprietor was named “Al” with a last name of either “Surreal” or “Surault,” according to an Aug. 1, 1999, Salina Journal story by Scott Aldis-Wilson.
The Cozy came to be not long after White Castle, a hamburger restaurant, started in Wichita, according to the Cozy Inn website. Both entities were examples of “a craze of six-stool diners with very limited menus that popped up around the USA,” according to the company’s history.
The Cozy’s second owner, Robert Kinkel, bought the restaurant within three months of it opening. He was in the wake of a semi-professional baseball career in Kansas. Kinkel moved to Salina in search of opportunity, the website reads. Sliders were sold for a nickel back then. They’re $1.39 now.
Cozy Inn trudged through the Depression years by offering “a satisfying, yet inexpensive meal,” as the story goes.
The Cozy’s popularity soared before and during World War II when the military built installations in Saline County, among them Camp Phillips and Smoky Hill Air Force Base, later named Schilling Air Force Base. The Cozy Inn was a “hangout for GIs needing a good meal on Soldier’s pay,” according to the restaurant website.
Robert Kinkel and his wife, Kathryn, also ran the business during the 1950s and 1960s (he died in 1960), when youths “became obsessed with hamburgers, soda pop and tucked away joints like the Cozy Inn,” according to the website.
“The Kinkels were friends with my grandparents (the late Bill and Mattie Schafer). They played cards every weekend during the 1950s,” said John Betterson, a longtime Salina resident. Others in the card group were Oscar and Edith Linn, and Mr. and Mrs. Mel Rudy (he couldn’t recall her first name). All are deceased.
After Bob Kinkel’s passing, Kathryn continued “The Cozy legacy,” eventually adding a partner after 1966, her second husband, Dick Pickering. They were known in the 1970s for their annual anniversary celebrations, “offering Cozys, chips and beverages at “yesterday’s prices,” the store history reveals.
When the Pickerings died in the 1990s the Cozy Inn was bequeathed to St. John’s Military School, Kansas Wesleyan
University and Salina Regional Health Center. The organizations sold the restaurant to Max Holthaus, Gregg Boyle and Monte Shadwick in 1996, during its 75th year. A former Salina mayor and Saline County commissioner and commission chairman, Shadwick left the business in 2001 and launched other ventures.
Howard bought The Cozy Inn during April 2007.
The Cozy’s appeal reaches across oceans and into other continents. Customers have come from most of the United States, including Alaska, and overseas.
Love affairs with the little sliders prompt some to order them shipped frozen. One package of frozen Cozy burgers were sent to Colorado March 1. “She should be getting her’s about now,” Windholz said, as noon approached on March 2.
Windholz paused to answer the phone and quickly corrected a caller. “No, we don’t have any cheese here,” Windholz said. Those dairy slices are strictly forbidden at the Cozy. “That’s a six-letter word we don’t use,” Howard said.
Jim “Smiley” Meyer, a retired city worker in Salina, plans a trip later this month to visit friends Charlie Tulson, and his wife, Kathy, in Sarasota, Fla. Meyer spent 32 years at the Bicentennial Center, and Charlie is a former Salina Journal pressman. “Whenever Charlie’s in Salina, he goes to the Cozy Inn. He called me up to tell me about the 100th anniversary,” Meyer said. While planning a trip to see the Tulsons, he decided to surprise Charlie by shipping him three dozen Cozy Burgers. “They’ll ship them the day before I leave, so they’ll be there when I get there,” Meyer said. “I’ll try to have a Cozy experience with a tailgate party.”
The winner of a Cozy Inn story contest in 1997, when the restaurant turned 75, was from Jim Baughan, who delivered Bob Kinkel’s newspaper, according to the 1999 Journal story. Before school, Baughan peeled and ground onions for the Cozy, and was paid in bubble gum. Later stationed in Guadalcanal in 1943 during World War II, he
received a February Christmas package containing Cozy burgers, and gum. The Cozys were coated in mold. After a week, Baughan’s sergeant ordered him and fellow Marines to “give the box a proper burial,” according to the Salina Journal story.
The restaurant gave work to possibly thousands over the years. Howard counted 358 employees since 1996.
Possessing a “soft spot” for baseball, early owners Bob and Kathryn Kinkel were known to hire local players as cooks, among them Bruce and Bob Swift. Included in the stories from the 1999 article were accounts that Bob would return home from playing catcher for the Detroit Tigers, and work a the Cozy Inn.
The restaurant was well known providing employment through the decades to young people. The experiences instilled a sense of loyalty to them, also pride.
A bit of lineage was developed for one family in particular, starting with Shorty Kellams, one of the first Cozy Inn fry cooks, pictured among four colleagues in 1940. His daughter, Kay Bishop, reported for duty one day at the Cozy,
“so she could say she worked there,” said Nicole McClintock, of Salina, a granddaughter. Her uncle, Salinan Donnie Bishop II, also worked there a few years, now at Salina Vortex.
McClintock landed a job a the Cozy Inn while a student at Salina Central High School. “I worked there about five years before they offered me a manager position in Manhattan,” said McClintock, referring to the Cozy Inn
that opened 2009 in Aggieville near Kansas State University’s main campus. “I was happy to start a new adventure and chapter in Manhattan,” she said. “I had started (college) at K-State. It was kind of a nice fit.” That store closed during the spring of 2021.
McClintock finished her bachelor’s degree in tech management from the K-State campus in Salina. She now works as an information technology specialist at Salina Technical College.
McClintock’s younger sister, Ashlee Bishop, of Solomon, also a Salina Central graduate, worked at the original Cozy Inn. Today, she’s an accounting clerk at Salina Scale. “It’s really special,” McClintock said. “We have a lot of fun
memories and great stories from all the (Cozy Inn) customers who came in from near and far.”
Service is a big deal to Steve Howard. “Some people travel hundreds to thousands of miles. They come in excited, and you just want to feed off their excitement and enthusiasm,” he said. “I had a professor in here and she said ‘I can
tell when my students have ‘it’ and you have ‘it.’ ” Years earlier, Howard was searching for a better future when he
was recruited to be a bartender by Holthaus, who was general manager at the Salina Country Club. Howard’s day job was a building operator at Franklin and Heusner elementary schools for the Salina School District. Before that, he spent 14 years with McDonald’s, and was taking a management course in Kansas City, all while recovering from a
broken neck suffered in a swimming accident in 1985. “I was lucky,” Howard said. “God had plans for me.” Holthaus developed a liking for Howard’s work ethic and enthusiasm at the country club. The high praise prompted him to
consider pushing Howard to consider the Cozy Inn.
“Steve’s just a great guy,” Holthaus said. “I had been asking him (about the Cozy) for a couple years, and he said he just wasn’t ready.” Then one day, Howard declared interest. He began to work, sort of undercover, at the Cozy Inn during January of 2007, and was a natural.
“Steve got in there and did a great job. He was just perfect for the Cozy,” Holthaus said, “He knew the community and how to talk to customers. He was enthused and wanted it to be successful.” Holthaus and Boyle financed the purchase and Howard paid for the Cozy Inn within 10 years.
The owner has spent the past 15 years coming up with innovative ways to promote the restaurant, among them donating Cozy Burgers to Ell-Saline schools, where they are sold at school events. With a bit of tape to hold wrappings in place, the sliders are tossed into the crowd at Liberty arena football games at the Tony’s Pizza
As an employer, Howard aims to help young people, and give a hand up to others who could use a boost. “He’s a pretty flexible boss,” daughter Andrea said. “He’s understanding. He listens and gives people second chances, and
helps out at the Ashby House, (family shelter) by giving girls jobs.”
Andrea, 24, who has worked at the Cozy Inn since she was 11, is an important cog in the future of the restaurant. She’s being groomed to take over.
“I’m pretty much my dad,” she said. “I’m the person right under him. I’ve been manning the grill and telling people what to do since I was 13, and I was considered a manager at 16.”
Howard said her daughter could run the restaurant “like a champ” when she was 12. “We had a contest for awhile, offering two free sliders if you could guess her age,” Steve Howard said. “They usually guessed she was older, and only got it right twice.”
Her brother Landon, 21, works as a welder for Great Plains Manufacturing in Salina, but spent some formative years at The Cozy Inn.
Howard’s wife of 30 years, Kris, also helps out occasionally at the restaurant.
Proud to be part of the downtown, Steve Howard is happy where he is with the business and its future, selling an average of 10,000 Cozy Burgers a week. “If you drive the interstate a lot, you’re either gonna pass some people with our burgers in their car, or be passed by one with them,” he said. “I’m in the tourism industry, and like I tell the
chamber, I’m putting Salina on the map. We’re Salina’s taste sensation destination, and we ARE a destination.”
_ _ _
Cozy Inn restaurant, 108 N. Seventh
Hours, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8
Phone: (785) 825-2699
Photos by Tim Unruh
Top photo: Cozy Inn owner Steve Howard happily hands over another sack of hot and fresh Cozy Burgers