We recently took a spur-of-the-moment trip to northwestern Ohio and stopped for lunch at Kewpee Burgers in downtown Lima.
I loved the quirky, uniquely local, historic, and architecturally interesting building, but I also liked the fact that the classic Kewpee Burger so loved by Lima natives has an historic connection to a Michigan favorite of mine, Halo Burger of Flint.
Kewpee Burgers originated in 1923 as Kewpee Hotel Hamburgs. Sam V. Blair started selling burgers near the Kewpee Hotel in Flint, Michigan, building what became one of the nation's oldest hamburger chains (second only to White Castle, founded in 1921). Blair claimed to be the first to offer curbside service (and later drive-through service) and to use flat-top buns with his square hamburger patties.
The chain took its name (with a slight spelling alteration) from the Kewpie dolls popular at that time, and those roly-poly baby dolls still figure prominently at Lima's downtown Kewpee Burgers.
Hoyt "Stub" Wilson opened Lima's first Kewpee as a franchise in 1928, when he and his wife June began selling hamburgers there for a nickel each.
We opted to eat at Wilson's original, gleaming white, Art Deco-style diner with its campy Kewpie dolls presiding over the front entrance and in the 40-seat dining area.
I ordered my burger with sliced olives, and it reminded me of my beloved olive burgers from Michigan's Halo Burger. The burger, a side of fries, and frozen lemonade made for a perfect late lunch. Visiting on a mid-afternoon weekday also made it easy to grab a parking place on the street near the little diner tucked among tall, downtown buildings.
Kewpee Burger once dotted the Midwest with over 200 locations in cities like Toledo, Akron, and Sandusky in Ohio; South Bend and Muncie in Indiana; Benton in Illinois; LaCrosse and Kenosha in Wisconsin; and Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo in Michigan. Many of the early Kewpee outlets were independently owned and featuring different menus and burgers.
An oft repeated story says Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, grew up eating Kewpee Burgers in Kalamazoo, which inspired him as he opened his first hamburger outlet in 1969 at Columbus, Ohio. One writer even claims that a Wendy's burger with mustard, pickle and onions tastes just like Kewpee's Regular burger, but I'm not buying that.
Kewpee Burgers in Lima takes particular pride in using only locally raised beef delivered fresh, never frozen, to the stores each day, where their employees grind it and form the patties.
Kewpee founder Sam Blair's retirement in 1944 and his death the next year didn't help matters.
Kewpee remained under control of Blair's estate until the 1950s. The estate sold the trademark in 1955 and put the estate-owned Kewpee Burgers up for sale in 1958. The sales resulted in situations like one in Flint, Michigan, where Bill Thomas purchased the Kewpee outlet there from Blair's estate, but changed the name to Halo Burger because someone else owned the trademark.
Further disputes over the trademark and franchising agreements saw the number of Kewpee Burger restaurants drop to nearly none by 1967.
In 1969, another group purchased the trademark and moved the company's headquarters to Lima.
Today, Harry Shutt owns Kewpee Inc., and the chain has five restaurants. Three locations in Lima include the downtown diner, plus two newer suburban locations. The other Kewpee Burgers are in Racine, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan.
Lima natives seem to relish their Kewpee Burgers from what I've read online, and it sounds like there is a lot of truth to the sign I saw posted in the downtown Lima store that said "Your Grandpappy ate here".
I felt right at home because of the historic link to Michigan's Halo Burger, and the cheesy appeal of Kewpee slogans like "hamburg, pickle on tip, makes your heart go flippity-flop" that reminded me of Halo's "Seven days without a Halo Burger makes one weak!"
Be sure to check out my story History and olives on the menu at Michigan's Halo Burger.
Come back tomorrow for more photos and info about the Kewpies at Lima's Kewpee and the Midwest connection to these popular early 1900s dolls.
Want to learn more about Kewpee Burgers? Check out Hamburger America: One Man's Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation by George Motz, which includes a profile of Kewpee Burgers in Lima, or Remembering Flint, Michigan: Stories from the Vehicle City by Gary Flinn, which mentions the original Kewpee in Flint.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved