By Amy Eddings
LIMA — The Kewpee hamburger is not fancy. It’s a four-ounce square of freshly ground beef between a soft, wrinkly topped bun.
If you want, the grill masters, in their white shirts and white paper hats, will add rings of raw onions, three leaves of Bibb lettuce, ketchup, mustard and pickles. Cheese, tomato, bacon and mayo will cost you extra. They’re about as gourmet as Kewpee condiments get. There’s no chipotle barbecue sauce or jalapeno peppers, no trendy add-ons like goat cheese or avocado, no discernible spices or herbs mixed in with the ground beef.
There are french fries, too, of course. And frosted malts in vanilla or chocolate. You’ll have to go somewhere else for salted caramel or mint chocolate chip.
It’s simple, straightforward, humble fare, the kind of food that Kewpee Hamburger owner and President Harry Shutt insists on serving and that Lima residents have embraced since 1929, when Kewpee’s first Lima branch opened its stainless steel Art Deco doors downtown, on North Elizabeth Street.
It’s what makes Kewpee Hamburgers The Best. The Best is a series that will examine area favorites, as voted on by readers on The Lima News’ Best of the Region.
“We don’t pretend to be something we aren’t,” said Shutt. “We’re food. We’re quality food, and we put all our emphasis on that.”
It was August, Kewpee Day at the Allen County Fair, but Shutt was sitting in his cramped little office in the basement of the downtown Kewpee.
“I’ll be there in the morning for the beef sale,” he said. “We try to buy locally as much as we can.”
At 83, he remains actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company he first joined in 1958, under the Lima branch’s then-owner Hoyt Wilson.
Kewpee got its start in Flint, Mich., in 1923, placing it second only to White Castle as the nation’s oldest fast food chain. At its height before World War II, there were nearly 400 Kewpees dotting the Midwest. Now, there are only five: Shutt’s three stores in Lima, a Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe in Lansing, Mich., and a Kewpee Sandwich Shop in Racine, Wisc.
Shutt said what makes his Kewpees special is that the hamburger is ground fresh at his stores each day.
“So many of the places, they buy a patty that is manufactured in one place, and then stored, and then shipped, and then they store it again,” he said, “so you don’t really know the age on it.”
“Hamburger,” Shutt said flatly, “should be fresh.”
While Shutt insists on freshness in his restaurant’s food, his headquarters is frozen in time. His office, with its wood paneling, grey-green metal desks and steel filing cabinets, seemed unchanged since the Hoyt Wilson days. The only evidence of modernity was brightly colored sticky notes, posted on the wall behind Shutt, and a laptop. Shutt wasn’t looking at it. It sat, closed, on a nearby desk.
“We don’t change much,” he said.
This is what would earn a thousand Likes on Facebook, if Kewpee Hamburger were to have a Facebook page, or even a website. Customers love Kewpee for being just like it’s always been since their first bite. They love the garish orange plastic chairs and padded stools in the downtown store, unchanged since their childhood. They ignore the lunchroom-like atmosphere of the newer stores, East and West. They love Kewpee for refusing to woo them in any other way than to continue to make simple, fast food, and do it well.
“Nothing’s changed in this place,” said Michael Brahn, sitting at a large table in the downtown store, a half-eaten burger and a frosted malt in front of him. A Lima native, Brahn now lives in Dayton with his wife, Bev.
“When we were first married, we would drive the 70 miles just to get a Kewpee, and then drive back,” she said. “Because the burgers are so good and because it just brings back memories of childhood and adolescence.”
They were on just such a lunchtime mission on a recent weekday afternoon, joined by Michael Brahn’s 83-year-old mother, his sister and her husband.
Bev Brahn said she asked the counter staff for several of the blue and white burger wrapping paper with the Kewpee doll logo.
“I send them to my sister, who lives in Florida, just to let her know I was here and she wasn’t,” she said.
At 15, Dashaw Green is too young to get nostalgic over Kewpee, but he’s already forming an allegiance.
“There’s no heart in McDonald’s,” he said, standing in line at the counter. “This is way better. It’s like the old style. I know about the old style.”
His grandmother, Mary Monford, beamed.
“Oh, yeah, he’s old school. He knows stuff,” she said.
Monford, a Lima native, lived for a time near Dayton. It was the first and last stop when she returned for visits.
“We would have to get us a Kewpee when we got here and a Kewpee when we got on the highway,” she said.
Shutt said he hears variations of this theme all the time. He said a customer once told him his family goes to Kewpee first before heading to relatives’ homes for Thanksgiving.
As other fast food chains add cappuccinos and veggie burgers, ciabatta bread and salads, he’ll stay the course with a grilled hamburger and untoasted bun, fries and a shake.
“We try to maintain our image, and our image is quality and cleanliness,” he said. “I think that’s the simple thing. People enjoy it. If they want a good hamburger, they know where to go.”
Amy writes for The Lima News. She’s a former New Yorker and public radio host. When she’s not writing, she’s canning, cooking, quilting and gardening. Reach her at 567-242-0379 or [email protected]