Humberto (Bert) Gonzalez left Texas in the early 1960s to visit his brother Hector in Belleville. Bert liked the area so much that he decided to stay.
To make a living, Bert bought the Chuckwagon restaurant at 4200 W. Main St., Belleville in 1963 and re-christened it Bert’s Chuckwagon. The rest is gastronomic history.
Bert converted the all barbecue menu to his native Tex-Mex shortly after taking ownership of the restaurant. He then set about convincing other Southern Illinois restaurant to use his products and change their name to Bert’s Chuckwagon.
The 15 Bert’s Chuckwagon restaurants that eventually appeared across the Southern Illinois landscape were all individually owned. When the owners sold the establishments, the name and product did not always transfer to the new owners, Roger Conner, owner of Bert’s Chuckwagon in Collinsville, said.
Bert’s has gone from locations in such places as Granite City, Centralia, Du Quoin, New Athens, Freeburg, Wood River, Edwardsville, Millstadt, Highland and Belleville (two locations), to just one, in Collinsville.
Founder Bert Gonzalez was Conner’s brother-in-law’s brother. The extended family connection allowed a young Conner to get a job at Bert’s when he was only 13.
Conner moved to the Collinsville location in 1967. He saved enough money to buy in as a part owner in 1969 or 1970, Conner estimates. In 1980, Conner bought the Collinsville restaurant and has owned it since.
“My first job was cutting grass and wiping bird droppings off the picnic tables, so hopefully I’ve come a long way,” Conner said.
Despite working 50 years in the restaurant business, Conner jokes that only his demise can stop him from owning and working at Bert’s. “I’ll work until I drop, then they will just wrap me up in a giant tortilla and drag me out of here,” Conner said.
Until 2010, the Collinsville location was the iconic A-Frame building at the corner of Clay and Illinois Route 159. The building was demolished in 2010 to make room for the expansion of route 159.
Since Oct. 2010, Bert’s has occupied the ground floor of a more non-descript building at the northwest corner of Main and Center. Conner said business has increased in the larger space, as has his overhead. Regardless of its location, Bert’s in Collinsville has attracted a steady stream of Tex-Mex lovers since 1965.
Conner said one of the favorite parts of his job is watching kids grow into adults, who then bring their children into Bert’s. Three generations of the McCloud family were on hand Saturday to celebrate Bert’s 50th. The Collinsville restaurant, which has become a local institution, celebrated its 50th birthday Saturday with food specials, a dunking booth for Conner, taco-eating contests and a photo booth.
Larry McCloud, of St. Genevieve, said he started bringing his son Chris to Bert’s Chuckwagon before Chris was old enough to remember where they were eating. Chris, now 42 and living in Fairview Heights, has continued the tradition, bringing his daughter Kailey (13) and sons Colin (6) and Connor (4) to Bert’s for the half-century celebration.
Larry is so dedicated to Bert’s that he would always make time to eat there when he was in the area visiting after moving to the Smokey Mountains. Chris said the smashed ice and the food’s consistency bring him back.
“As long as I have been eating that taco (he says while nodding at three uneaten tacos still remaining on his plate, which contained remnants of several other tacos), it tastes the same,” Chris McCloud said.