Burger bar closes after more than 30 years in city

Burger bar closes after more than 30 years in city A dining institution in Vermillion has closed its doors for good. Penny and Red Sailer stand by the sign of Bimbo's Burger Bar Monday afternoon, on the eve of the restaurant's sale to a new owner. The Sailers operated the eating establishment for more than 33 years. by David Lias The grills that have been fired up on a daily basis at Bimbo's Burger Bar for more than three decades are cold today.

The fast food restaurant, which has become an institution in Vermillion, served its last meals Tuesday. Bimbo's owners, Penny and Red Sailer, have sold the business.

At the end of business Tuesday, the Sailers locked up Bimbo's for the last time. Customers who stopped by Monday after learning that Bimbo's would be open for only one more day would often ask who the new owner is.

The Sailers preferred to keep that bit of news to themselves, to allow the new owner the chance to announce his plans for the business.

"The new owner gets the keys on Wednesday," Red said Monday afternoon, "but don't ask me what it's going to be, because he hasn't told us. We'll have to wait and see what happens when he takes over."

Penny wishes the new owner the best of luck. "If he doesn't run it as a Bimbo's, we won't cry," she said. "An era is an era, and I'd like to be part of an end of it."

A new experience

Penny and Red had no experience in the fast-food business, which was in its infancy in South Dakota when they opened Bimbo's in Vermillion on June 12, 1966.

"A guy that owned the franchise was from Rapid City, and I was a painter in Rapid City, and I knew the fellow that owned the franchise and he talked us into coming down here and opening this Bimbo's and running it for him," Red said, "which we did for the first 10 years. Then we bought it in 1976, and owned it ever since then."

Since 1976, Bimbo's has been a mom and pop operation, with help from the Sailers' four children, Jadeen, Malinda, Jody and Jill.

"They all worked here from about the time they were in eighth grade until they were in college," Red said.

"Without them, we could have never stayed here," Penny said. "We could never have been here this long without them."

People who hankered fast food when the Sailers first arrived in Vermillion could visit an A&W Root Beer stand or visit the FroStop. Both of those two businesses, however, were only open during the spring and summer. Bimbo's was open year 'round.

Bimbo's has, until this week, outlived its competitors.

"Since we first opened, we've seen a lot of them come, and a lot of them go," Penny said.

Humble beginnings

Even though Bimbo's was part of a franchise, it had humble beginnings here back in 1966. It wasn't much more than a hamburger stand at first. People couldn't even stick around to enjoy their meals. There was no indoor dining area.

"We didn't have any inside seating," Red said. "It was just a walk-in establishment, with a little lobby."

"We added the inside seating later, due to the demand of the public," Penny said. "At that time, drive-up windows were obsolete. They have since come back, but at that time, they were not in the public demand."

Back in Bimbo's early years, a hungry customer could purchase a satisfying meal simply by emptying the loose change from his or her pockets.

"Hamburgers, when we first started, were 15 cents apiece. Now they're 65 cents apiece," Red said.

A serving of onion rings cost 22 cents in 1966.

The Sailers kept up with customers' changing tastes over the years by adding to their menu. For example, when Bimbo's first opened, it offered only one size of hamburger. At the time of its closing, its menu offered burgers of a variety of sizes, clear up to a half-pounder.

"Our menu has increased to four times the size that it was on the day we opened," Penny said.

"Although we still have everything we had when we started," Red said.

"The original menu is still here," Penny said. "We have just added to it."

Tremendous local support

For over three decades, and especially in recent years, Bimbo's has been able to survive in a day and age when franchises and big corporations purchase smaller independent businesses.

Bimbo's has filled a unique niche in Vermillion. Without the fanfare and promotions and advertising blitzes of the large restaurant chains, it has offered good food to hungry people.

"The local people have been very, very supportive of us, and I can't express that as much as it needs to be expressed," Penny said. "The college students have been good to us also, but without the local people, we couldn't have stayed in business as long as we have."

Back in the mid-1960s, when the hamburger franchises began to open in the state, its owners decided to name their business Bimbo's.

"One of the men who started the franchise knew Bimbo the clown," Penny said. "He was real, and he worked for Barnum & Bailey at the time of Emmet Kelly."

The walls of Bimbo's are filled with framed drawings of clowns.

"All of the clowns in this building ? I've not bought a one of them. They've all been given to me by my customers,"

Penny said.

More than a job

Bimbo's has provided the Sailers with more than a steady job and income in Vermillion for more than three decades.

By mid-Monday afternoon, for example, the lunch crowd had left, replaced by familiar faces who stopped in for coffee or a cool drink, and of course, a healthy serving of socializing.

The conversations and laughter became loud and animated at times Monday.

"After these 30-some years, we have got some hilarious stories to tell; we have some sad stories to tell," Penny said. "There have been good moments and bad moments. It's been quite an experience, and we will miss it, Red and I both, very much."

The Sailers suspected that word of Bimbo's pending sale must have begun to spread through town, judging by their volume of business on

Monday.

"We were awfully, awfully busy," Penny said. "You would have thought it was Dakota Day. People have been wonderful. People of Vermillion have been very, very good to us, and we're going to miss so many of them."

Retirement isn't in the Sailers' immediate future.

"We're looking for a 40-hour-a-week job," Red said, laughing, "with Saturdays and Sundays off."

"There is no way that we will retire," Penny said. "Red will continue to paint, and I'm sure that I will find something to do."

If they could turn the clock back to 1966 again, the Sailers would once again devote much of their lives to operating Bimbo's here in Vermillion.

"Believe me, it's been a challenge," Red said. "It's been a good one, not a bad one. There was always something new."

"We would do it all again," Penny said. "There were trying times working side by side on a daily basis with your husband, and he with his wife, because when we did finally go home, we had nothing to talk about. We experienced it all day.

"We probably divorced each other about once a week, and that's probably what's kept us here," Penny said.

Ideal community

At the eve of Bimbo's sale, Red said it was hard to comprehend that he and his family have devoted more than three decades to the business.

"It seems like it just was a couple years ago when we started this," Red said. "It doesn't seem like it's been thirty-some years."

"And where else can you raise four children and have the opportunities of the school system here?" Penny said. "We have the best school system in South Dakota right here in this area."

"All of our kids have a good education, they all have good jobs, and it's because of the good school system here," Red added. "As far I'm concerned, this is probably one of the better towns in South Dakota as far as sending your kids to school, because they have about every opportunity there is here."

More than just two generations of the Sailer family have worked at Bimbo's over the years.

"You know it's time to get out when your employees are the granddaughters and grandsons of the first employees that worked for you," Penny said.

"We've had fathers, sons, grandsons and great-grandsons working here," Red said. "It's time to leave when you have four generations following you."

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