Lucas Bros. is closed. No last-minute reprieves, no extensions, no steady stream of customers to hold out hope for a longer life.
The restaurant earned its fame for hamburgers, and the last was grilled Dec. 13. That evening, owner Cheri Perkins turned out the lights at the small diner on State Street. She’s never been back.
The name Lucas Bros. has been identified with hamburgers in Columbus since 1937, when brothers Merlin “Pete” and Lloyd “Doc” Lucas leased a downtown building on Fourth Street that had housed Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop.
There have been a number of moves over the years, but the distinctive taste and aroma of those hamburgers have never changed.
Until Dec. 13, Cheri was another Columbus institution who seemed to never change. She had worked at the hamburger stand for 48 years. Her family has owned the business since 1973 when her mother, Donna Cannon, purchased it from Benny Ping. Cheri took over the operation in 2005 when her mother died.
“It was hard,” she recalled earlier this week in talking about the day of the closing. “There was just nothing else I could do.”
The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. Actually, Lucas Bros. was supposed to have been closed much earlier — the first weekend in August of last year.
Cheri had told her customers of the plans to shut down the operation. Expenses had outpaced income. The equipment was years old and in desperate need of repair, which she couldn’t afford.
Her plans to close were reported in a front-page article in The Republic. The cafe’s colorful history was recounted in a column on the Opinion Page.
The next day, customers lined up for the lunch hour. “We opened at 11 a.m., and from then on it was standing-room only,” Cheri said at the time. “The lines were so long that people had to leave because they didn’t have enough time.”
There were crowds again the next day and the day after that.
Many of them were customers from the past, especially that period from 1937 to 1983 when the hamburger joint was a downtown landmark. It also was a contributor to some of the smells unique to the downtown. Some of those odors weren’t pleasant. Not the Lucas Bros. hamburgers, though, which were piled high with grilled onions (at the customers’ request) and emitted an aroma that could be smelled for blocks.
Its fame reached far. Indianapolis restaurant critic Reid Duffy reviewed the hamburgers (giving them a thumbs-up) in 2005.
But the core of its business was within the city of Columbus, and feelings about Lucas Bros. ran deep.
When longtime customer Dot Yeaton heard of the closing she wrote, “I nearly suffered cardiac arrest when I saw the story.”
There were enough return customers like Dot to cause Cheri to extend the closing date through the rest of August to Sept. 1. Even then, the customers were still keeping the staff busy, and Sept. 2 came and went with Lucas Bros. still dishing out those hamburgers.
Unfortunately, the August reprieve was short-lived. Cheri’s numbers declined each day, but her expenses kept mounting.
“It slowed down to the point late in the year that we hardly had any customers,” she said. “I couldn’t even afford the rent.”
When the doors closed for the last time in December, Lucas Bros. was only a shadow of its former self.
The restaurant is gone, but I suspect the memories of that unique smell of the Lucas Bros. hamburger piled high with grilled onions will linger in quite a few minds for years to come.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.