One of Sapulpa’s most iconic eateries, Hickory House Bar-B-Q, has announced that they’ll be closing their doors at the end of business on Saturday and in turn closing the book on a 41-year Route 66 legacy.
Gilbert and Roberta Ortiz came to Sapulpa from Amarillo, TX in 1977, but it wasn’t to make BBQ—it was to make burgers.
“We came to Sapulpa with a Mr. Burger franchise,” Roberta told Sapulpa Times on Monday morning. The restaurant was at the intersection of Lincoln and Mission, just down the street from its current location. The place is a Daylight Donuts now, but it was a hopping burger joint back in the late seventies and early eighties. “It was packed,” Roberta said. “After a football game, everybody would go there. The onion rings were homemade.”
Meanwhile, the owner of a quiet little barbecue restaurant on Dewey Ave thought of throwing in the towel. That place was Hickory House Bar-B-Q.
“They were closed completely during the summer,” Roberta said. “They would be open for lunch Monday through Friday, but close down during the summer. They had come in the Mr. Burger to eat and my husband asked them, ‘when are you going to open back up?’ and he said, ‘well actually, we’re thinking about selling it.’” Gilbert told them he wanted to buy it.
The Ortizes ran both restaurants for a short period of time, until one day they got a phone call from Mr. Burger’s corporate office, who said owning another restaurant, despite it being a different category of cuisine, was a conflict of the interest of the franchise. The Ortiz sold their enterprise out to another franchisee and decided to focus on Hickory House.
Initially, it looked like they’d made a mistake of going independent instead of siding with a then-known brand.
“For a long time, we sat over there,” Roberta said. “(The previous owners) weren’t open at night at all, so we had very little night business, and little by little, we built up a clientele.”
As customers got used to the restaurant being open at night, they began to stop in for dinner.
“You’d have one customer or two customers and eventually, you know, I remember the first Friday night we had a big Friday night, it was so crazy. We made $500 that day and back then that was a lot of money.”
In those early days, the restaurant was fully a family affair, including their young daughter at the time, who was only a toddler. “People come in and say, ‘I remember your daughter sleeping under the counter,’” she said.
As customers got used to Friday and Saturday nights at Hickory House, the restaurant’s popularity grew. Then, at the end of their five-year lease in 1986, the property owner said they wanted to sell. That’s when Hickory House made the move to its current location, a former gas station and liquor store at 626 N. Mission. Eventually, the original location was bulldozed to make room for a strip mall.
After making the move, Hickory House started something new: live music. It started with blues and rock and roll, and eventually added in bluegrass and finally country swing. The place began to be such a hit that more room was needed and in 1993, an additional room was added with a small stage and gave the people a place to dance. “On the country swing night, people would come in dressed in their little outfits together, with their matching hats, really cute couples,” Roberta said.
After several good years, Gilbert and Roberta decided close for a week and take a trip to California to visit their grown daughter. It was 2002, and while they were on their way back, a bad storm in Sapulpa developed. A lightning strike hit the building and set it on fire. While in Oklahoma City, Roberta says they got the phone call that the building was on fire.
“It was terrible, because first of all, you’re not even close. When we got here, it was just devastating. Everything in the kitchen was just completely melted down the wall.”
That fire led to the restaurant being closed for over a year, and the Ortiz almost decided to use that opportunity to move again, this time, out of Sapulpa completely.
“At that time, Glenpool was getting ready to build all that out there,” Roberta said, referring to the shopping and retail district that has gone into the area of Hwy 117 and Hwy 75. “We thought, well, we can just build a whole new building and have more parking, too.” Thankfully, the city and its customers begged them not to leave. “And we really like the whole ‘Route 66’ thing, anyway,” Roberta said. “So we built back. And it’s been good to us. Route 66 is really good to us. We got a lot of travelers during the summertime, and we’ve always said that promoting Route 66 is a good thing, and people are finally starting to promote it more because now more people are getting out and traveling and doing stuff.”
When the pandemic started in 2020, the Ortizes nearly decided to close the restaurant and retire then, but by that time, Roberta had a better understanding of the need for the Hickory House, especially during those troubled times. “We kind of tossed it around, should we stay or should retire, but I told my husband, ‘we can’t, too many people don’t cook at home. They rely on that,’” she said, adding that for some it’s cheaper to go out and get a meal. “We have some couples that come in here and they share one dinner between the two of them and that keeps them full the rest of the day,” she said.
When they were forced to move to takeout only, they decided to begin closing on Mondays. They never moved back to their original schedule.
Hickory House has not been immune to the rising costs of goods, and not only has it affected the prices on their menu, but it’s affected the flavors, in some cases, when they have to switch brands to keep it affordable, or just to get something that has been hard to find.
The artwork on the walls is a large part of what made Hickory House so unique. Local artist Russell Crosby, a frequent customer of Hickory House, has several paintings on the wall, many of which are familiar subjects like those seen in the Sapulpa Post Office, but the major characters have been replaced by pigs. Further down, are paintings of Oklahoma icons like Will Rogers, or music legends like Leon Russell. In one corner is a tribute to Ortiz’s daughter, Reuschel, who grew up to become a US Marine. When she was a child in the restaurant, another frequent customer, the grandmother of Ricky Bruner, would come in and little Reuschel would affectionately refer to her as “Grandma.” “Come sit by me, grandma,” Roberta said she used to say. It’s a way of thinking she says they worked hard to instill in their children and their employees. “I don’t get this whole prejudice racism,” she said. “It drives me nuts because you don’t look at people like that. American people are people. We’ve always told our kids, and our workers, ‘you respect the person that works, regardless of their job.’ A working person, regardless of what they do, deserves respect, whether they’re picking up trash or washing dishes, or working in the corporate world.”
When asked about why they’re closing instead of handing the restaurant off to one of the kids or the staff, it comes down to the desires of those involved. “There are people in the kitchen that could keep it going, and Megan out here, she has the ability, but she doesn’t want to do that. If you’re going to manage a place, you’ve got a lot of responsibilities and a lot of hours.”
She says they will have the place listed for sale soon, but aren’t sure about how it will do, because whoever buys it will have to run the business, not just buy it to keep everyone employed. “We’ve done a lot of the work ourselves for a long time. That might make it hard to sell,” she said.
But for now, Roberta says they’ll just focus on the time they have left and make the most of it after the restaurant closes. “Now we’ll get to actually go out and do the things that everyone else used to do before they’d come to eat afterward,” she said, laughing.
Every day, Roberta is reminded of what she’ll be losing. “There’s a family that comes in from Chandler. And they came in the other day and we had to tell them the news and they were just devastated. She said, ‘you know, when we come over, we’re treated like family. That’s what we love about this place.’ And that’s how a lot of people feel. That’s going to be the hardest thing.”
As they began to make plans to close the store, she keeps going back and forth in her mind. “I keep thinking, ‘oh my gosh, we can’t do this!’ But you know, we can’t go on forever, even if we might want to.”
Hickory House will remain open until 8:00 pm every day this week, with their last day being Saturday. Their buffet is open for lunch until 1:30 pm.