When you bite into a Town Topic burger, you’re tasting a little bit of Kansas City history. The local chain was founded in 1937 by Claude Sparks, and by its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, it boasted seven locations throughout the metro area, mostly near the old trolley and streetcar stops.
Today, there are three locations. Two of the “original set,” as they’re called by Scott Sparks, Claude’s grandson, are located in the Crossroads Arts District just blocks from one another (one on Baltimore Avenue, the other near 20th and Broadway). In the late 1980s, the Sparks family opened a Town Topic in Mission, Kansas. Originally, all of the locations were open 24 hours – today, only the Broadway shop keeps the lights on past 3pm. Scott is the third-generation family member to own the business; after Claude died, Scott worked alongside his father, Gary, eventually purchasing the chain from him in the late ’90s.
Very little has changed since Scott took over (except the prices – from 5 cents for a burger in 1937 to $3.10 for a single burger today). “Grandpa and dad had a certain way,” he says. “Dad didn't change anything, and I don't change anything.”
That “certain way” involves a flat-top grill – “Nothing special, the same as any grill you'd see in any other restaurant, really,” says Scott – which is where nearly everything on the Town Topic menu is prepared, including the legendary burgers (single, double, triple or “bigger,” featuring a half-pound patty). Made with a custom ground beef blend from L&C Meat in Independence, Missouri, burger patties are flattened onto the grill with onions smashed on top; they crisp and caramelize into the meat as they cook.
Town Topic regulars have a certain way, too. When asked about “secret” menu items, Scott laughs – there’s no secret, he says. “Everything’s à la carte – people just dress stuff up. You can make any combination of anything you want. The entire menu is available all day, so whatever we have in the store, you can put it on there. It’s all cooked to order right there in front of you, which is nice.”
Everything from the usual – like adding an egg and bacon to a burger – to the creative. At the Broadway location, you can ask for the Three Amigos burger, a “bigger” half-pound patty piled high with a fried egg, bacon, jalapeños, extra cheese and hash browns.
“About five years ago, there were three guys who used to come in a lot, and they all ordered a burger that way,” Scott says. “Someone would sit next to them and say, ‘Give me one of those!’ To a degree, that’s always been the case – people always create their own items.”
Some of those people, Scott adds, have been creating their own signature dishes for years. He estimates that more than half of Town Topic’s clientele are regulars, and what he loves best is seeing parents and grandparents come in with a new generation of Town Topic devotees: Youngsters plopping down at the old-school diner seats, tucking into their first slice of butterscotch pie (all Town Topic’s pies are baked fresh and delivered daily from Golden Boy Pies, an Overland Park, Kansas, company that started in 1973).
“That's one of the cool things just to see the different generations coming in together,” Scott says. “We’ve going a span of over 80 years, and we’ll have a lot of people [who] will come in and say, ‘My dad brought me here,’ or, ‘My grandparents brought me here.' You have all these great stories. That’s what I love.” (Photo by Logan Wade)
Town Topic, multiple locations, towntopic.com