A taste of yesterday

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Posted June 18, 2021 | Sadie Fitzpatrick, Columnist

[Carlos Medina/OG]

Editor’s Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome.

The line of cars snakes around the building and onto the adjacent road. Brakes squeal, and taillights flash as each vehicle inches closer to the Hungry Bear Drive-In.

My little brothers and I fidget impatiently in the backseat of my mom’s tired Suburban. Mom tries to distract us by asking about our days at school, only to be greeted by one-word answers and cries of “I’m hungry!”

Finally, it’s our turn. Mom rolls down her window, and the pungent aroma of cooking grease fills our car. Miss Linda slides open the window screen, her pad and pen poised to take our order.

Our order is always the same: two Mama Bear burgers with cheese, a large fry and three Cherry Sprites with extra crushed ice.

These culinary delights were delivered in a brown paper bag, splotchy with grease. It was my job to cradle the bag until we got home, occasionally meting out steaming crinkle fries to my brothers.

Trips to Hungry Bear served as a precious after-school ritual for my family. As we waited in line, our mom was able to hear about what was going on in our lives without the distractions of schoolwork, housework or something else that needed tending to. She savored these conversations since we would soon become too cool to talk openly with our mom.

We used trips to Hungry Bear for celebrations (good report cards, a winning baseball game) and milestones (a peanut butter milkshake is just what the orthodontist ordered after getting braces).

When I got my driver’s license, I navigated my old Volvo sedan into the drive-thru line at Hungry Bear. Miss Linda and her family members were still there, serving up delicious, made-to-order food.

On breaks home from both college and graduate school, I would return to Hungry Bear, craving their grilled cheese sandwich. There are few things more comforting than the combination of white bread and Kraft Singles melted together and wrapped in wax paper.

Ocala has grown by leaps and bounds. Its very landscape, particularly in downtown Ocala, has changed dramatically, yet Hungry Bear remains a constant. Its location at 420 SE Osceola Avenue, right down the road from Osceola Middle School, means there’s always a steady stream of hungry students.

It is within walking distance to many of the city’s government buildings, which means you’ll often see city employees dipping into their burgers and fries at the lone picnic table by the walk-up win-dow. Its small, red brick building sits unchanged along the edge of the sprawling downtown square, which now includes a farmer’s market, many fine dining and fast-casual restaurants and a hotel.

In a world that is fast-paced and ever-changing, Hungry Bear refuses to adapt. You are greeted by a smiling human being, not a disembodied voice over a speaker. There is no computer system to take your order, just an old-fashioned pen and paper. The menu rarely changes because, well, why would it need to?

Everything is made right when you order it, so it’s a bit of a wait. There is nothing that is low calorie because they serve comfort food and, because the world isn’t fair, comfort food is a million calories. There are no flashy ad campaigns or fancy branding, just a faded sign with a drawing of a bear.

I know, I know: I’m always advocating for my sweet hometown to change. We could always use a bit more culture, a lot more tolerance and be a smidge more liberal. However, I’m happy that there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Ocala, and it’s Hungry Bear.

Have your own observations about Ocala? Share them with Sadie at sadie@ocalagazette.com.

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