In a fast food landscape littered with national chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, Bronco’s always struck me as a little peculiar. I was curious as to where this restaurant whose mascot is a lasso slinging cowboy came from. So with that, let’s step away from Center Street for a bit and explore the history of Bronco’s Self-Service Drive In.
The story starts with William T. Barnes. Born in Omaha in 1921, William served in the U.S. Army from 1943-1945. Not long after being discharged he renovated the A&W Drive In just down the street from his childhood home. In that location, he got his start in the restaurant business by opening Preema Drive Inn at 16th and Binney in 1946. Preema’s was an old school drive-in in which car hops would deliver the food to your car. They offered such fare as chicken, shrimp, hot tamales, footlongs and hamburgers, of course. With his hard work and business acumen, the restaurant thrived and after four years, he opened a second location at Turner Boulevard and Farnam St.
It seems that while travelling to Chicago, William had the idea of opening a fast food restaurant with a cowboy theme. It was inspired by memories of playing “cowboys and indians” as a child. With that in mind, he called the restaurant Bronco’s Self-Service Drive In. It all came together in its famous neon signs that depicted a cowboy with a lasso riding a bronco. This completed William’s transformation to “Bronco Billy”. He opened the first Bronco’s restaurant at 30th and Fort St in 1959. Business was so good that he opened a second location at 45th and Leavenworth just three years later in 1962. While the reason that Preema’s closed isn’t entirely clear, it seems likely it was closed in favor of Bronco’s which continued to grow. Additional Bronco’s stores were opened in Bellevue at 17th and Galvan Rd in 1964, 72nd and Pacific St in 1967, 120th and Pacific St in 1974 and downtown at 19th and Harney St in 1978. Amongst all of this growth, Bronco’s opened a shiny new headquarters at the Twin Towers at 30th and Douglas in 1967.
No doubt motivated by the prevalence of franchises among other fast food restaurants, Bronco Billy decided it was time to expand the Bronco’s footprint beyond Omaha. To accomplish this goal, he started Bronco’s Franchise Inc., an Omaha-based company whose sole purpose was to sell franchises for 30-35k to interested small business owners across the country. As the President and Chairman of Bronco’s Franchise, Billy would help open stores in such places as Lincoln, NE, Council Bluffs, IA, Phoenix, AZ, Denver, CO, Santa Ana and Anaheim, CA as well as Seattle, WA. But before they could slap the Bronco’s name and logo on its store and open the doors, the new owners first needed to come to Omaha to train in one of the chain’s original restaurants.
Sadly Bronco Billy unexpectedly passed away in 1974 at the age of 52. His death, the result of complications following major surgery, left his wife Mary in charge of the growing burger empire. She would receive help from Tom Kelley, a local attorney who owned Clancy’s Pub and was an early investor in Bronco’s after they married in 1977. They would run the restaurant chain together until Tom passed away in 1989.
Steven Barnes, the son of Bronco Billy and his wife, assumed control of Bronco’s in 1992. As a child, Steven remembered the concrete being poured for the original location. After making an offer that he couldn’t refuse, Steven made the painstaking decision to sell the location to Sonic Drive-In in 2002. That same year, he saw an opportunity to expand the restaurant by replacing Hot Rod’s Cafe in Rod Kush’s Furniture Mart at 72nd and L. The new restaurant was called Rock’N Bronco’s. Setting it apart from the other Bronco’s, Steven applied for a liquor license at this location. Not sure what the driving force was behind this decision but maybe they were following the lead of the Godfather’s Pizza Joint which also opened that same year and offered a full bar. As far as I can tell, this concept was short-lived as it closed not longer after opening. The closures would continue when 72nd and Pacific closed in 2015. It was purchased by Runza.
By the time Steve would turn the business over to his son, Blake, Bronco’s would have just two remaining locations: 45th and Leavenworth and 120th and Pacific. Despite the setbacks, Bronco’s has shown that it isn’t done yet. As early as 2021, he explored opening a new location in Elkhorn/Northwest Omaha. Unfortunately, expansion plans had to be delayed as a result of the pandemic which has caused many restaurants to reduce hours due to a lack of employees.
“Bronco Billy’s” legacy is that he opened Omaha’s first locally owned and operated fast food restaurant. A restaurant that remains family owned and insists on using fresh, not frozen, beef, chicken, pork and potatoes. Not to mention the fact that its french fries, often considered the best in town, are hand-cut and peeled from whole potatoes daily. This is what sets Bronco’s Hamburgers Omaha apart from other fast food burger joints and the reason it has become an iconic Omaha restaurant since its founding 60 years ago.