Before the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King became household names, Kewpee Hamburgers established itself as an American fast food favorite. No, there aren’t many chains older than this one. But despite having loads of restaurants dotted across the Midwest years ago, there’s an unfortunate reason why you’ll only spot a few around today.
So where can you find these last few Kewpee restaurants? Well, three of them are in the same city while the other two are spread across different states. Like we said, they’re sparse. Sticking with the latter pair, the outlets are established in Racine, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan.
As for the trio, those outlets are all located in Lima, Ohio. You’ll spot them in the downtown, western and eastern regions of the city, so they’re not all piled on top of each other. But what do they look like? How do the establishments stand out when compared to their fast food competitors?
Simple really — look out for a giant baby! Yes, the downtown Kewpee store has a large mascot standing on the roof, essentially watching over the sidewalk. That should get your attention. What about the interior, though? Does it measure up to the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King? We think so.
The layout is pretty standard, with booths situated along the wall. Plus, there are other tables sitting to the side of them to cover the floor space. The color scheme, however, is pretty unique, combining orange seats with white worktops. So if you’re in Lima, Kewpees looks like it could be a pleasant place to enjoy a hamburger.
Anyway, these last five establishments are all that remain of a franchise that once ruled America’s Midwest. As we mentioned earlier, the restaurants were once seemingly everywhere. With that in mind, you’re probably wondering how Kewpees got its start. Well, the story began over 100 years ago in the state of Michigan.
You see, as World War One was drawing to a close in 1918, a new restaurant opened its doors in Flint. This establishment proved to be the inaugural Kewpees, selling burgers to hungry residents across the city in Michigan. But here’s the thing — the chain itself didn’t start up for another few years.
In fact, the Kewpee brand wasn’t officially established until 1923, building off the first restaurant run by Sam Blair. At that stage, it took on the name “Kewpee Hotels Hamburgs.” So yes, the chain has been around for a very long time. Is it the oldest in America, though? Surprisingly, two franchises have it beat.
A&W got started in 1919, while White Castle followed a couple of years later. But other than that, Kewpees has been around for longer than the rest of the fast food chains in the United States. To give you a bit more context, the first McDonald’s restaurant didn’t appear until 1955.
There’s something for you to remember for your next trivia quiz. Mind you, the story behind Kewpees’ name is pretty interesting as well, and it ties back to the giant mascot that we spoke about earlier. If you collect “funny papers” from years gone by, you might be familiar with that baby already.
For the rest of you, though, here’s a bit of background. Back in 1909 an illustrator named Rose O’Neill drew up a new batch of characters called “Kewpies.” The name was in reference to their appearance, as they had similarities to Cupid. From then on, O’Neill’s creations became increasingly popular in the newspapers.
Yes, readers couldn’t get enough of the cute illustrations as they took up residence in the cartoon section. Yet the craze for the Kewpies eventually led to a significant moment. As more and more people took an interest in them, the characters popularity was no longer to be confined to the pages of a newspaper.
So the Kewpies branched out into the world of retail. O’Neill’s creations were turned into toy dolls, ranging from paper to plastic. And before you knew it, they were all over local funfairs, where kids could win them from the stands. The characters then caught the attention of a certain Michigan burger chain.
Kewpees not only adopted a variation of the characters’ name, but it appointed a Kewpie as its mascot too. Ronald McDonald has nothing on that particular journey. Anyway, once the chain’s title was established, another landmark happened in 1926. At this point, a man named Ed Adams bought the trademark.
Off the back of that, a new Kewpees popped up in a different part of America in 1928. That was Lima’s downtown store, which we described a little earlier. Hoyt and Julia Wilson, otherwise referred to as Stub and June, were responsible for setting the restaurant up. And it’s fair to say that it looked very different compared to now.
You see, the downtown Kewpees started out as a tiny store on the sidewalk. Customers were able to ask for their food from the front window. As for the prices, The Lima News website reported that a single hamburger cost five cents at the time. Even in today’s money, that’s less than a dollar.
So that brings us on to the menu itself. What kind of food was being sold from the Kewpees in Lima during those early years? Was there a variety, or were customers limited in their choices? Well, The Allen County Reporter took a closer look at one of the lists from 1930.
Of course, hamburgers were prominent on that menu. Other than that, though, pie was the only alternative if you didn’t fancy a burger. There was more choice on the drinks front, as you could pick up root beer, cola, coffee or a milkshake. Along with that, bottles of beer were on sale for a while too — for only 10 cents.
The downtown Kewpees stayed as it was for just over a decade, before receiving a major upgrade in 1939. At that stage, a new property was constructed in its place, boasting an enamel gloss. Not much has changed since then, but consumers were now offered another drink on the menu, a frosted malt.
Then again, it could be argued that the coolest innovations were made outside the restaurant. You see, five years after the new building was opened, Kewpees started a “curbside service.” This was ultimately one of the earliest examples of what we would now call a drive-in. And of course, drive-thru service evolved from that.
In fact, a drive-thru would eventually displace the popular curbside service downtown in 1988, much to the chagrin of many Kewpee fans. But while the old system outside was one of the restaurant’s biggest selling points, it wasn’t the most impressive. That honor belonged to the turntable in the car park.
Due to the relatively cramped space in the lot, customers would have had trouble maneuvering their vehicles without hitting anything. So, Kewpees installed what was essentially a giant lazy Susan on the tarmac. From there, drivers could position their automobiles over the turntable and were rotated towards the exit. That’s pretty cool!
Unfortunately, though, the turntable was eventually removed once another car park opened up. Nothing fun lasts forever right? Yet while Lima’s store was thriving, you’re probably curious how the chain was doing as a whole back then. After all, Kewpee Hamburgers wasn’t just restricted to one city in Ohio.
Well, to say that business was good would be a gross understatement. Kewpees was doing a roaring trade between the 1920s and ’40s in the Midwest. Incredibly, close to 400 stores opened up over that spell — even reaching parts of New York. The sky was the limit. But one major event changed everything.
Yes, World War Two had a massive impact on Kewpees’ growth in the United States. The war caused the beef supply to grind to halt, which was very bad news for any popular hamburger chain. And as a result of that, a large chunk of the restaurants were forced to shut down.
Even so, the store in Lima managed to ride that period out. How did it survive? To answer that question, the restaurant’s latest proprietor, Harrison Shutt, spoke to The Lima News in December 2015. Apparently, the business adopted a clever tactic to keep its head above water when the beef ran low.
Shutt told The Lima News, “It was patriotic to have [a] meatless day. In fact, the Lima Kewpee served hot dogs one day a week for a while.” Talk about thinking on your feet. After the war, the chain recovered in Ohio, ahead of a big moment in the early 1970s.
When Stub Wilson passed away at the start of the decade, Shutt was named as the new man in charge of the downtown shop. And it didn’t take him long to put an ambitious plan in place, as he aimed to open a second Kewpees restaurant in Lima. The franchise might have been dwindling in other parts of the country, but not there.
So Shutt got to work, eventually opening up the new store in the western region of Lima in 1972. That restaurant was slightly larger than the first, as it could accommodate 65 customers. But he wasn’t done at that. No, Shutt had eyes on a third shop going into the 1980s.
Ultimately, Shutt’s plan was realized in 1981. This turned out to be the largest of the three restaurants, with space for just under 200 visitors. Not too shabby. Now, those establishments stand alone as the final remnants of the Kewpee chain, alongside the other two outlets in Wisconsin and Michigan.
With that in mind, you’re probably curious about the current menu. What does it look like now? Is it broader than the old one? It sure is. You see, in addition to the burgers, there’s now a list of sides and some breakfast options too. The changes don’t end there either.
Today, customers have plenty of choice beyond a regular hamburger. For instance, fish sandwiches are available at the restaurants, alongside vegetable and cheese options. Plus, you can add toppings and extras to your burger if you want to spruce it up. The most expensive item on the menu at present is a double burger at $4.40.
Pretty reasonable wouldn’t you say? But while the five restaurants are keeping the Kewpee name alive, the chain might live on in another way too. How so? Well, a rumor has persisted that these stores inspired one man to open up a new franchise. We’re referring to Dave Thomas — yes, the guy behind Wendy’s.
The legend goes that Thomas grew up close to a Kewpees and was inspired by their burgers and shakes. Mind you, people outside Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan have also tried their best to keep the Kewpee name out there as well. That became clear on the chain’s website, as users could previously sign a virtual guestbook.
In the past, there was a Kewpees restaurant in Utica, New York, that eventually shut down in the middle of the 1970s. And it’s fair to say the store’s old customers have very fond opinions of the place, as some of them shared their thoughts on the website. Barb Green was one of those users.
Green wrote, “I grew up in Utica, and can sure attest to the wonderful Kewpees hamburgers, etc. My sisters and I ate there countless times. Our high school was only a couple blocks away, and a walk to the ‘Square’ was a frequent after-school activity.” Her memories didn’t end there, though.
“Kewpees was one of the first places I took my future husband when he visited Utica — he loved them too,” Green added. “Thanks for the memories!” Meanwhile, a different user echoed her thoughts as they praised the old store. But in addition to that, they also made a passionate statement at the end.
This unnamed user wrote, “I still talk about the burgers Kewpee had to offer, they are the best [and] will always be the best. I have lived in Utica all of my 61 years, and I would just give anything to bring back a Kewpee Burger. I also went to a high school only a few blocks away from Kewpees.”
“Talk about a wonderful business,” the user concluded. “I will never understand why [Kewpees] left the area. We all want Kewpees back in Utica. We don’t want Burger King and McDonalds, they can’t hold a candle next to Kewpees.” Could Kewpees possibly ever return? Well, Harrison Shutt offered a slight glimmer of hope in December 2015.
“We can now, of course, go anywhere, but we do want to protect our rights and our heritage,” Shutt told The Lima News. “To go out and let just anybody do it might destroy all that we have worked so hard to build up over the years.” Might a cautious comeback be on the cards? Never say never.