Stella’s Bar & Grill is paradise for burger-lovers. So, it should come as no surprise that the Bellevue eatery’s most loyal regular has been eating at Stella’s for more than 60 years.
It’s not just any burger joint. On one wall there is the Wall of Fame, covered with photos of the rare conquerors of Stella’s signature food challenge, “The Stellanator” (a 4.75-pound burger stacked with six patties, six eggs, 12 pieces of bacon, peanut butter, and a host of other toppings all pinned between buns with a skewer). And of course, there is also the Wall of Shame for those unable to complete the monstrous burger with a side of fries within 45 minutes.
Confronted with the burger joint’s legendary reputation, a newcomer could easily overlook another of the restaurant’s famous staples—an elderly gentleman perched on the same black barstool day after day. His name is Don Hilpipre, better known as Stella’s most loyal customer.
Often wearing a baseball cap with statements like “U.S. Navy Retired,” the 92-year-old Hilpipre returns to the restaurant like clockwork—usually around midday, then again in late afternoon. Stella’s place in his daily routine has remained unchanged for a decade.
“I’ve been coming up here every day for about 10 years now,” Hilpipre says, beaming with pride. “But I first came here around 1953. I remember Stella [aka Estelle Francois Sullivan Tobler, the restaurant’s original owner] making her hamburgers. Really, just the old-timers can say that.”
Hilpipre, a native of Minnesota, discovered his love for burgers and the city of Omaha after moving here in the mid-1950s. Before his move to “The Beef State,” Hilpipre proudly served six years in the U.S. Navy and then went looking for his next adventure.
His search for adventure led to the state of Nebraska. He worked as a postman in South Omaha for 28 years and treated himself to an occasional burger during his lunch breaks. That’s how his bond with Stella’s was born.
He became a twice-a-day regular 10 years ago, upon moving into Harmony Court Retirement Apartments in Bellevue. Since then, he’s rarely missed the chance to sip a cold beer, nibble on a burger, and keep employees company.
“He comes in normally twice a day,” says Stella’s co-owner, Pam Francois (the great-great-niece of the original Stella). “In the afternoons, he orders two Budweisers, gets hugs from all the girls, and then gets handshakes from all the guys.”
If for some reason the loyal customer doesn’t show up, Stella’s staff will call him or check with his assisted living facility to make sure everything is OK.
Overall, Hilpipre estimates he has eaten just about everything on the menu. He enjoys the burgers, chicken strips, and even the chili, but acknowledges that he does have a regular order: one Stella Staple Burger, no bun.
But he has never tried the Stellanator challenge. Hilpipre says he doesn’t want to lose, and he knows he can’t eat that much.
While he’s quick to admit he loves the food, that isn’t the only thing that keeps him coming back.
“I love everything here, but especially the girls,” he says with a grin. “They like me and I like them. I’ve got to give every one of them a hug before I leave.”
For Hilpipre and those associated with the restaurant, being at Stella’s is as much about the food as it is about the family atmosphere. Overall, Hilpipre is just as much a part of Stella’s as the grease on the grill.
“He’s part of the family,” Francois says. “He’s a reminder that you have to sometimes slow down and be that special person in someone’s life.”
Visit stellasbarandgrill.com for more information about the restaurant.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha.