With many stops along the road for Cozy Dog Drive In, the local favorite’s journey began in a USO kitchen on the Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas in the 1940s. Route 66 passed by the base years before Cozy Dog would become a point of nostalgia on the historic highway in Illinois.
It was in that kitchen that Ed Waldmire tested out a recipe from Don Strand, a friend at Knox College. The recipe was a batter for dipping and deep-frying hot dogs. The “crusty cur”—known as the “cozy dog”—was born. It became a popular item at the USO and PX during Ed’s time in the Air Force.
Following his honorable discharge, Ed and wife Virginia decided to continue the operation in Illinois. Virginia requested they change the name and designed the iconic logo. Cozy Dog officially launched on June 16, 1946 at the Lake Springfield Beach House. Later that summer, they made their first appearance at the Illinois State Fair.
The Waldmires’ journey continued with the first Cozy Dog House, a takeout counter on South Grand Avenue in Springfield, and a second “house” was later established in town. In 1949, the landmark Cozy Dog Drive In came about, sharing a building with Dairy Queen on Route 66. Four decades later, the restaurant moved one last time next door, taking the place of the old Abe Lincoln Motel. A silhouette of the former president from the motel can be found next to the restaurant’s front door.
Though ownership has changed hands from Ed to son Buzz, to former daughter-in-law Sue, and then to grandsons Josh and Tony, the establishment has remained in the family. Ed’s grandson Josh Waldmire currently owns and operates Cozy Dog.
“The menu has for the most part stayed the same. We still make our homemade chili that Grandpa came up with, homemade bean soup, the cozy dog formula is still the same and fresh-cut French fries,” Josh says.
The atmosphere—an amalgamation of newspaper clippings, curios and Route 66 memorabilia—contributes to the feeling of traveling back in time. “Believe it or not, most of it is stuff travelers brought in,” he says.
The drive-in’s original sign now stands next to the dining room’s side door. “That’s the sign from the old building. I think it was replaced in 2003. These old dogs right here are what used to be on top (of the building). People love to stop and get their photo taken with them. It’s like an Abe stop, rubbing his nose and getting your picture taken. Get your picture taken with cozy dogs. I’ve seen people hugging them, too.”
The place has its idiosyncrasies: “We have a pickup window,” he adds. “At the old restaurant, one side was carry-out and one side was dine-in. When dad designed this building, he said we were going to do the same thing. … Then we opened, and people just started pulling up and ordering at the window. So now it’s a drive-up with no intercom,” he laughs. “We ended up adding a doorbell, so we know when someone’s there. … You can pick up your order or you can pull up and order.”
Josh says they sell anywhere from 500 to 900 “cozies” a day in the summer. In the off season, it’s closer to 200 to 300. “Our hamburgers are still very popular. They’re fresh meat, not frozen. … We have a Cozy Dog labeled soda from one of the old soda jerks… and we still carry the Route 66 brand sodas. We still have our little condiment bar where customers can fix their sandwiches.”
He added a homemade white American cheese sauce six years ago. “I came up with it because we were going to add horseshoes to the menu.” After experimenting, they found it took too much time to put them together, especially during busy times. But they kept the cheese sauce. He says patrons request it for dipping their dogs and fries and topping their chili cheese dogs. “Some people order cheese sticks and dip their cheese sticks in it. People love cheese,” he adds with a chuckle.
According to Josh, the drive-in’s connection to Route 66 wasn’t intentional. “Grandpa basically got lucky picking this location. … It was close to the interstate, a new area, not to mention the Allis-Chalmers plant was across the street.” He says the reason for the diner’s strong connection to the “Mother Road” is because of Bob Waldmire, his uncle who was an artist and cartographer.
“Bob’s the one that brought that in after my dad had already taken over Cozy Dog. Bob’s one of the people, along with Tom Teague [founder and former president of Route 66 Association of Illinois], that helped spur the interest and spread the word. Right now, we’re one of the last few original places on 66 in Springfield.”
The restaurant sees a lot of Route 66 followers—from both the U.S. and overseas. They’ve had visitors who have seen them on shows like the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. Classic car show participants often stop by, and some groups meet there regularly.
Josh plans to keep things pretty much the same and isn’t interested in opening additional locations. “We have a wholesale side. … We sell our mix to people who have their own food stands.” He says a little more than half of the corn dog vendors at the Illinois State Fair use their mix. “There’s a lot more than running the single restaurant. We have the souvenir side – t-shirts, Route 66 memorabilia and whatnot.” He hopes one day his own children will take over.
“[People] love to come in and tell me how they came here with their parents. They’re bringing their grandchildren or their children. … They love how everything is pretty much the same—the menu, how everything tastes. We try to keep everything the same and not change unless it needs changed.”
The restaurant’s history attracts people. “It gives you that little niche to help draw people in. I feel lucky that we’ve got something different than most other restaurants do, so we don’t blend in with everything else and fade away. We stay unique.”