Treasure Hunt: Long-ing for a burger at Wheelers and making animal connections at Babby Farms

By January 1, 1970June 10th, 2018No Comments

Wheeler’s Handout, “satisfying cravings since 1953,” is an old-fashioned, mom-and-pop burger joint at 215 Caldwell Blvd. in Nampa. For real. It’s the sort of place you might’ve seen in a nostalgic movie celebrating mid-20th century wholesome Americana, like Steven Spielberg’s “American Graffiti,” or in the ‘80s sitcom “Happy Days,” a TV show you can find on the ME channel.

Blink your eyes all you want, this place is the real deal, although it’s been around as long as the movies and sitcoms it could’ve been featured in.

Current-day owner Kathi Bruderer said her grandparents were around when it opened and bought it in 1955. “People used this place as a landmark,” Bruderer said.

She’s the third generation to work there, and members of the fourth generation — her son, Chance Bruderer, 18, and her daughter, Aleschia Holloway, 28 — are often there taking orders at the walk-up or drive-thru windows. Even fifth-generation members of the family make an appearance from time to time.

“Sometimes you’ll see my granddaughters, they like to hang out with Grandma,” Bruderer said.

“Home of the long burger” boasts the sign. And when I broached the idea of stopping at Wheeler’s for a bite to eat while on a recent road trip with the fam, my daughter Tracy was more than intrigued. “What do you mean, it’s long? You mean like a rectangle? Oh, we’ve got to stop there. I’ve never had one of those. I wonder how they do that?” This was all said in the same breath, and I knew we’d found the right lunch stop along the way.

We were on the road to Babby Farms. We’d seen it listed in the Idaho Press summer guide for 2018 “101 Things to Do.” Babby Farms, in Caldwell, was in the No. 1 slot.

More on that later. Back to Wheeler’s.

That long burger has been the pride — and the bane — of the restaurant. For more than 60 years, that rectangular patty was what set the place apart from all the others. Well, that, plus the homemade onion rings, finger steaks, pulled pork, corndogs, chili and fry sauce. Then, in late 2016, the meat packing company told Bruderer the machine that formed the uniquely-shaped patties broke and it was not cost-effective to fix it. And so, after trying a number of workarounds to fix the shape conundrum, “in 2017 we officially went to round burgers,” she said.

More on that later.

When we stopped there on Mother’s Day, my daughter and I ordered a couple of long burgers (“The Throwback Burger” on the menu, my grandson Max got a regular round burger, my granddaughter Julia ordered a corn dog, and we all split some tots and onion rings. We loved the novelty of the long burgers (yes, you can order them, but they are now all hand-pattied), and the rings and tots disappeared in seconds, so my family gave it a thumbs-up rating. While we sat on the patio, Max, 13, looked at the “wall of fame.”

“I bet I could eat one of those,” he said. On the wall were about a half-dozen names immortalized as winners of the “18 Wheeler Challenge,” a monster sandwich made with two pounds of meat, bacon and cheese, 1/2 pound of fries and a large milkshake. “We have to order special buns for them,” Bruderer said. Do they get many orders for the giganto burger? “We might get three or four a month,” she said, “or sometimes three or four at a time, if a group challenges one another. Not many have been able to do it.”

The best news about this story? I found out the long burger is back, baby. “We’re officially putting it back on the menu as our main staple,” Bruderer said. So it’s a great day for the Wheeler Special (single cheeseburger), the Wheeler Dealer (double bacon cheeseburger) and the Wheeler Squealer (double cheeseburger with ham).

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By the way, you might ask, who came up with the “long burger” notion? “Nobody really knows where the idea came from,” Bruderer said.

Driving out to Babby Farms, with bellies full of burgers, we were satiated and excited for our next stop. And that was a good thing because it was a bit of a drive that took us into the hinterlands of out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Caldwell countryside that edged right up to where-in-the-world-are-we Middleton farmland. “Are we lost?” Tracy asked just as we came upon our destination.

Babby Farms is a zoo and it has exotic animals. We didn’t really know anything else about it when we drove up. (I always get a little nervous taking my crew along on a road trip. They are not easily amused and sometimes a bit eye-rolly, so my recommends are hit and miss. I mentally crossed my fingers as we got our tickets and began our tour.)

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This place is the bomb! There are well-cared for animals everywhere. Some are exotic — we saw this really cool ring-tailed lemur who had a moment of communion with Tracy; Julia, 9, was in heaven when she entered the building with the sloths (her favorite animals); and Max was entranced with the yak — “did you see how big he is? I wonder how much it weighs?” There are monkeys and kangaroos, an iguana and a laughing kookaburra, emus, a camel, a zebra, a zedonk and a zorse.

Others are more pedestrian — there was a baby goat just getting his horns. “He’s been head-butting everything,” said Dakota, one of the zoo’s caretakers. A raven named Merlyn caught my fancy. Dakota told me he had been raised by a family who had chickens. “He thinks he’s a chicken. He’s never taken flight, he just hops everywhere.” He also plays fetch, tug of war, and is learning to talk. “I can hear him in his cage mumbling,” Dakota said.

The zoo is a nonprofit, and while it is open to the public (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday), its real mission is to offer the benefits of up-close and personal animal therapy for children and adults with disabilities. And, oh yeah, did I say that it is a petting and feeding zoo, for the most part? A favorite moment for us was petting the kangaroos. They are unbelievably soft.

Tracy also had her moment of zen with an emu. She was so thrilled to see one and she got some animal feed and held her hand out for the giant-beeked bird. And when the emu swooped down and pecked at the seeds, the thrill of the moment turned to a rictus of terror. As soon as she saw her hand was intact and no blood was let, she was ecstatic. “It pecked it right out of my hand,” she said. “What was I thinking?”

But everyone’s favorite moment (except mine) was when the llama decided it didn’t like the cut of my jib and launched a forceful stream of spit my way.

Ha ha.

I wiped the spittle off and we climbed into the car for the ride home.

“Grammy, that place was awesome. You’re the best.”

Who cares about a little spit?


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