Dangling his long legs from the vinyl stool, Rickie Bradford leans across the counter and almost licks his lips as he watches a cheeseburger sizzle on the range.
He looks like a man who just returned from Siberia to taste his first American burger in years. But his eagerness is deceiving. The Brooklyn Park plumber is only waiting for his standard lunch.
Since he was 17 years old, Bradford has headed nearly every day to Mom Ward's Sub Shop for lunch -- a 5-ounce cheeseburger topped with fried onions, mayo and a -- of hot sauce.
He's a man who likes consistency. And the 29-year-old has found the right niche at Mom Ward's, a narrow, former pool hall, dominated by a long luncheon counter, that was converted into a sub shop by Charles "Dickie" and Kay Ward in 1962.
Smack next to Ritchie Car Wash, surrounded by a sea of broken concrete and overwatched by a mechanical gorilla, Mom Ward's has survived three decades of change without yielding much. The Ritchie Highway eatery still has the same off-beat personality and charm, the same 30-year-old pinball machines and the same Archie posters from years ago.
The burgers and hand-cooked steak sandwiches, however, are the real meat and juice of Mom Ward's that keep neighborhood regulars coming back for more.
Bikers and businessmen sit cheek-to-jowl and banter with "the girls" behind the counter. Car washers from next door line up to order subs, while a few old-timers sit in one of the yellow booths and slowly sip another cup of coffee.
When asked why they keep coming back, all the customers, from grandmothers to car mechanics, give the same answer. They like the warm, unpretentious atmosphere. But most of all, they love the cheap, rib-sticking food.
"The friendliest place around," is how Christine Ward bills the eatery she bought from her parents five years ago.
"People come back from all different areas and say, 'Man, I just had to have one of your burgers.' Or they say, 'I knew your parents, and they were just the greatest people.' " It's a tough legacy to follow, but Christine, the second oldest of the Ward's eight children, thinks she's up to the challenge.
The 38-year-old and her 27-year-old fiance, Steven Lehman, opened a check-cashing business next to the pinball machines and expanded the menu to include daily specials, such as meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and fish with macaroni and cheese. Although the couple also just opened a second Mom Ward's in the industrial Curtis Bay area of Baltimore, they still focus a lot of energy on the original eatery.
"We're kind of workaholics," says Lehman, who used to flirt with Ward while eating cheeseburgers at Mom Ward's. His persistence paid off last year when she finally agreed to a date.
The two get up before dawn to open Mom Ward's by 5 a.m. for the first drowsy customers. A steady stream of truckers and commuters drop by for coffee, pancakes or eggs until midmorning. The business picks up again at lunch and in the evening until Ward and Lehman switch off the lights at 10 p.m.
Ward knows the business like the back of her hand. After all, she started working behind the counter as a child, along with her seven brothers and sisters.
Her parents bought the concrete and steel building when it still was Club Ritchie Billiards, a smoky neighborhood pool hall. The couple used to grill burgers and hot dogs for the teen-agers and college students who played pool or hung over the flashing pinball machines.
"We used to have a tremendous pool business until the Vietnam war got hot and all the boys left," recalls 61-year-old Dick Ward.
To combat the slowdown, he decided to shift the focus and expand the menu to attract more families. He brought his wife, Kay, into the business, stuck pictures of her smiling face on the menus, and named the joint Mom Ward's.
"Back then, we used to sell a 6-ounce burger for only 35 cents," he reminisces, leaning back with a smile in one of the yellow plastic booths.
He and his wife raised eight children, now ranging in age from 40 to 25, but they also sort of adopted a number of regular customers over the years.
"It just seemed that people kind of opened up to me. They were always telling me what was going on in their lives," admits Kay, a bubbly 56-year-old with sparkling blue eyes.
The Wards are a traditional Irish Catholic couple who lived on the same Linthicum street for more than three decades. When their family grew, the couple simply bought the adjacent row home and knocked out the dividing wall.
All the Ward children worked at times in the sub shop, says Christine, who describes her family as "big and close, with strict but very loving parents."
Christine, her younger brother, Charles, 33, and her sister, Nancy, 27, are the only three who caught the restaurant business bug. The other five children have scattered across the country, from California to Florida.
Charlie and Nancy Ward also opened a sub shop in Brooklyn Park, but introduced a pizza line as a twist on the family recipe.