There’s a stretch of Lake Air Drive where businesses, restaurants and stores are so tightly stacked it can be hard to tell where one building ends and the other begins. But above the asphalt and numerous shades of concrete an air balloon soars.
Perhaps not exactly “soars,” as the metal and plastic balloon logo is grounded to the sidewalk, but it does suggest the upward direction Captain Billy Whizzbang’s is going.
Captain Billy Whizzbang’s opened on Waco Drive in 1977. The Barton family, who owned the restaurant at the time, named it after a character they created in a short story titled “The Intense, Emotional, and Exciting Saga of Captain Billy Whizzbang.”
The restaurant’s location has changed twice and owners have come and gone, but that story is still featured on Captain Billy Whizzbang’s walls.
The tale follows the intrepid Captain Billy’s failed attempt to traverse America in his giant balloon, “The Wicked Windbanger,” at the turn of the 20th century. Six days into his journey, the captain is assailed by a thunderstorm and eventually crashes “somewhere between Gatesville and Naruna, Texas.” Embarrassed, the captain does not return home but decides to stay in Texas and perfect the “old fashion hamburger.”
His hamburger stand becomes an international success, so the story goes, and Captain Billy is robbed by Bonnie and Clyde, who return his money and tip him $20 after tasting the burgers they stole. The story explains how the current Captain Billy Whizzbang’s honors the late captain by using his recipe, which was recovered after many years of “test cooking and interviews with old-timers (many of whom broke down in tears reminiscing of the captain).”
Current owners Trent and Jennifer Neumann have managed the restaurant at 901 Lake Air Drive for five years. Trent and his father, Ronnie Neumann, bought it from John Mabry Jr. and George Harmon in July 2009. In 2012, Trent purchased his father’s share, making he and his wife owners of Captain Billy Whizzbang’s. Jennifer, a former marketing director for The Dwyer Group, now works alongside her husband at the restaurant.
Under the Neumanns’ care, business has consistently grown and is now posed for possible expansion, they said.
Honoring the past
While the future is bright, the Neumanns are quick to honor the restaurant’s past. Probably the best example is the Captain Billy Whizzbang’s sign that stands next to the cash register. Trent Neumann recalled how the sign came into his possession.
“A friend of mine was junking in Clifton, and he was in this woman’s barn and found that sign,” he said. “It had probably been in there for 30 years. … The best we can guess, that is the original sign that hung over Waco Drive.”
The sign is now the primary logo for Captain Billy Whizzbang’s and is a testament to the Neumanns’ appreciation for the history they have inherited.
The menu also has remained the same since the Neumanns’ ownership, with one exception. In addition to the hamburgers, the restaurant offers freshly battered chicken fingers, steak fingers and chicken-fried steak: which is offered as a sandwich on the “secret menu.” It also offers fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings, fried pies, BLTs, hot dogs, grilled cheeses, grilled-chicken sandwiches, and a selection of salads as a lighter option.
Hamburger meat is delivered daily by Waco Custom Meats & Seafood, two blocks from the restaurant. The patties are pressed twice daily, weigh a third of a pound, and are prepared on a flat-top grill with the customer’s choice of bun (plain, sesame, wheat or jalapeño). Each hamburger also comes with choice of cheese (American, Swiss, cheddar and jalapeño Jack) and how it is dressed. The basic burger has one patty and a slice cheese, but the restaurant offers a range of sizes up to the colossal 4x4, which is four patties and four slices of cheese.
The menu’s only new option is the Whizz-Pigg. The Whizz-Pigg was created three years ago when their friend, McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna, suggested that Trent blend bacon into a burger, much like adding pork to processed venison.
“The next day I grounded some beef and bacon and mixed them together and it tasted outstanding,” Trent said. “I started testing mixtures of the beef and bacon and came up with the recipe we liked.”
After Trent refined his beef and bacon patty, Captain Billy Whizzbang’s held a contest to name the new burger, with the winner receiving free burgers for a month. But as Jennifer described it, “We were walking one night and I suggested the name ‘Whizz-Pigg,’ and it eventually was voted on and won. I won free burgers to a restaurant I already owned.”
The Neumanns said what they love about the restaurant is seeing their customers, many of whom are regulars. They estimated 70 percent of their customers come twice a week. But they also have noticed new faces as sales have nearly doubled from the previous year, they said.
Jennifer Neumann praises Waco as a community that supports local business.
“If it was any other city, I don’t think we would have this success,” she said. “A national chain will be put in a block or two away from us, but the locals will still support the mom-and-pops.”
They also smile at the thought of how the Baylor football team has supported the restaurant. Defensive end Shawn Oakman at one point ate there daily for three consecutive weeks and would bring more teammates with him every time, they said.
The Neumanns said they hope Captain Billy Whizzbang’s is a place Waco residents can feel welcome and call their own.
“If I knew this was somebody’s Friday night — date night — spot it would make my day,” Jennifer said.
The couple is planning on sprucing up the interior of Captain Billy Whizzbang’s, but they also are considering adding a downtown location or opening a food truck. “We love this community,” Trent said.