Cheap burgers in paradise - History of the hamburger

By Milford Prewitt

Nation's Restaurant News;

Whatever its price, the hamburger is truly an All-American favorite. Its popularity began to rise just before World War II, and now, Americans buy almost 5 billion burgers a year. Love American style: Americans' love of hamburgers -- 75 Years

When it comes to eating away from home, no other food item has come to mesmerize the American palate or dominate menus over the past 75 years as much as the mighty hamburger.

Whether char-grilled, flame-broiled, steamed, fried or cooked on both sides at once in double-sided griddles or slathered with ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese or even teriyaki sauce or buried under onions, avocado or mushrooms, the hamburger is to the restaurant industry as wings are to a aviation.

With names like Whopper, Big Mac, Steakburger, Big Burger Deluxe, Champburger or Dave's Deluxe, hamburgers began to eclipse all other menu items right before World War II -- including the once-dominant hot dog -- and never let go of its reign.

Pizza might be on an upswing, fried chicken might be juicier, Tex-Mex might be spicier, hot dogs might be neater, skinless broilers might be more healthful, Chinese and Italian might offer more variety, ice cream might be more fun, but none of them matches America's unremitting craze for hamburgers. With hundreds of millions of burgers sold in the United States each year, it is no wonder that fortunes have been made off ground beef patties or that five of the biggest chains in the restaurant industry have burgers as their core menu item.

According to GDR Enterprises, the foodservice research and consulting group, hamburgers accounted for 17 percent of all meal transactions in 1992, a frequency rate exceeded only by beverages, at 30 percent, and french fries -- the universal hamburger companion -- at 22 percent.

The research group estimated that the number of hamburgers served in 1992 topped 4.7 billion, or the equivalent of 1.2 billion pounds.

In the most recent book to lionize the hamburger, "Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger," by Jeffrey Tennyson, a graphic designer and hamburger memorabilia collector, hamburger is the "hands-down all-time favorite food."

"Lauded for its convenience and versatility as either snack or entree and labeled as both a cultural icon and a cliche, the hamburger -- this omnipresent beef-between-bun creation -- is a meaty, multifaceted phenomenon," Tennyson wrote. "The average American consumed nearly 30 pounds of hamburger a year -- three burgers per person per week, totaling 38 billion annually, which, placed end to end, would form a heavenly chain of hamburgers 1.8 million miles long."

Tennyson suspects that human-kind's love of hamburgers began when we were not humans at all, but a 5-foot-tall pseudo-human called Australopithicus, who, quite by accident, discovered the wonderfulness of cooked meat when either lightning or a spark from the friction of stone tools ignited dry grass and seared freshly killed bison.

Fast forward the picture a couple of million years to the Russian tundra, where the first recorded "burger history" shows that nomadic horseman laid the groundwork for the modern-day hamburger. Then, Mongolian and Tartar warriors, who loved the taste of raw steaks, softened their filets by placing them under the saddles of their horses while riding into battle or on marauding parties.

Later, when it was time to eat, the filet would be eaten raw, having been tenderized by the saddle and the back of the horse. Supposedly, this is the origins of the delicacy steak tartare, the raw first step to hamburger.

Fast forward the picture again a couple of hundred years and stop on New York's Ellis Island, where immigrants from Germany were entering the United States in the early 19th century with a recipe for "Hamburg Style Steak," a chopped and broiled filet that was served raw in Hamburg.

Near the end of the a version of their homeland meal from short-order cooks, and later the patty would be joined with a bun, ushering in the modern era of the hand-held sandwich.

Between those developments are several towns that claim to have invented the hamburger, Tennyson reported. The residents of one of them, Seymour, Wis., argue that Charlie Nagreen created the hamburger at the age of 15 in 1885, when he delivered the world's first hamburger from a concession stand at the Outgamie County Fair.

The family of Frank Menches, whose descendants now live in Skron, Ohio, claim he invented the hamburger by substituting ground beef for pork in his famous sausages on one particular day when high heat and humidity forced butchers to stop slaughtering pigs.

The widest-reported "first" appearance of the hamburger most commonly cited in the lore of foodservice was that the product appeared at the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904.

But the man who gave the hamburger its contemporary look and sought to expand the products appeal through chain operations was J. Walter Anderson, a Winchita, Kan., resident who went on to co-found the White Castle Hamburger system, the oldest continuously running burger chain.

Helped with the marketing savvy of Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram, White Castle reached five units by the 1920s, selling a standardized product for five cents. Later While Castle would pioneer the concept of chain marketing with the advertising tag line "Buy 'em by the Sack."

So successful would While Castle become that a whole army of imitators, believing that the word "White" in their names would pave the way to profits, would sprout White Tavern. White Tower, White Diamond, White Clocks and White Domes. Taking a somewhat different tack was Royal Castle Hamburgers.

Another early pioneer in chain development through burgers was the Wimpy Grills chain, launched in 1934, in homage to J. Wellington Wimpy, the chubby, mustachioed cartoon character who hung around with Popeye. Wimpy was ground-breaking in two respects: It was the first chain that attempted to court an upscale diner with 10-cent hamburgers, and it was the first to go overseas.

But when its founder, Ed Gold, died in 1978, the chain vanished in keeping with a provision in his will that all 1,500 units close.

In New York the "Bun N' Burger of 34th Street" was born in 1939 and grew to 2 units along the East Coast, perfecting the art of fast food quick, made-to-order sandwiches.

With the growing affluence of America after World War II and customer demand for automobiles, foodservice operators turned to the drive-in as the preferred format for serving the hamburger. While drive-ins were conceived as early as the mid-1930s, the concept exploded phenomenally during the war and after.

California and Texas were particularly active enclaves for drive-ins, where the hamburger, fries and shakes were the dominant menu offerings, served by a carhop, who often delivered the meal on roller skates.

A&W and sonic drive-ins remain

A&W Restaurants, Steak n' Shake and Sonic Drive-in became the major players in the burger field. While Steak 'n Shake later abandoned the carhop format by the early 1970s, Sonic and A&W Restaurants remain today the only active descendants of a once-thriving segment.

By the 1950s the drive-ins were beginning to become associated with hooliganism juvenile delinquency. Families, worried about their safety in the midst of motorcycle gangs and teenage cutups, looked for other dining venues.

One operation that filled the void was Bob's Big Boy, the first chain to roll out double-patty burgers. Invented in the late 1930s by Bob Wian, the double-patty burger would become a genuine signature sandwich as the chain grew.

Like White Castle, whose competitors put the word "white" in their names, Bob's Big Boy soon encountered an armada of imitators who put the word "boy" in their logos. Among them were Goody Boy, Country Boy, Bun Boy, Beefy Boy, Yumi Boy, Lucky Boy and even Super Boy. Nearly all featured double-decked burgers.

But it wasn't until a milk shake machine salesman named Ray Kroc met two brothers named McDonald that the course of burger history would be forever changed and the product would be chiseled right next to mom's apple pie as an American icon.

Maurice and Richard McDonald opened their first self-serve McDonald's in 1948 in San Bernardino, Calif. -- as an alternative to the drive-in outlets -- as a hot-dog and fresh orange juice stand.

Three decades later McDonald's would rank with General Motors, IBM and Sears as symbols of American capitalistic might.

In the 1986 book "McDonald's: Behind the Golden Arches," author John Love told how Kroc grew the chain from an obscure start-up to an industry behemoth.

While many of the staggering numbers and developments associated with the chain are well-known, the immensity of it deserves recounting, to wit:

  • The number of hamburgers the chain has sold is 12 times the world's total population.
  • In its first 30 percent of the country's work force.
  • One out of every 15 people got his or her first job with McDonald's.
  • In 1985 one of every six restaurant trips in the nation ended at a McDonald's.
  • McDonald's serves so many french fries that it requires 7.5 percent of the entire domestic potato crop to keep its customer happy.

The king of fast food with its famed operating principle QSC -- quality, service, cleanliness -- McDonald's reinvented the wheel when Kroc standardized and perfected the means to duplicate consistency in thousands of restaurants and ensure those standards through tough franchising enforcement.

Sales in excess of $21B in '92

With its ubiquitous arches, the company has been rewarded with world-wide chain sales in excess of $21 billion in 1992.

Borrowing a page from some burger predecessors, particularly Bob's Big Boy, McDonald's also developed a number of signature menu items including the Big Mac the brainchild of Pittsburgh franchise Jim Delligati -- the Quarter Pounder, the McDLT and, in a concession to nutrition advocates, the McLean Deluxe, a 90-percent fat-free hamburger.

As is the case with any success story, others emulated McDonald's methods and service commitments.

Snapping at McDonald's heels the closest was Burger King, followed by Wendy's and Hardee's.

All four chains underwent tremendous growth during the mid '60s to late '70s, expanding with the massive teenage baby boom. At one point in the late 1970s, the four chains together accounted for as much as 37 cents of every dollar Americans spent to eat out.

But rather than be carbon copies of each other, McDonald's three arch-rivals added their own refinements and marketing distinctions to separate themselves from the pack. The most telling way was in the way they cooked their burgers.

Burger King, for example, is known for flame-broiled burgers. They gave the chain the opportunity to serve large patties that retained moisture and taste, leading to the creation of its heritage sandwich, the Whopper.

Hardee's likes double-sided grillers to prepare its burgers and penetrated the market with the Big Burger Deluxe.

Not to be outdone, Wendy's took on its then-larger competitors with square-shaped burgers that went on to win numerous consumer polls as the best-tasting burger of the big four.

Wendy's took on even more firepower during 1984 when it poked fun at its competitors with its "Where's the beef?" campaign, featuring an 80-year-old woman who was angered by the small patty size at an anonymous restaurant that billed itself as "Home of the Big Bun."

The marketing phrase even made it into politics when the Democratic presidential candidate took rival Gary Hart's platform to task by asking Hart in a presidential debate, "Where's the beef" in his positions.

As the recession kicked in during the late 1980s to early 1990s, the burger boys found that their customers were abandoning them for value and broader menu diversity. Taco Bell rolled out the 39-cent taco while cash-strapped families begin eating more and more at dinner houses where their dollars stretched farther in a table service setting.

Pressuring the traditional burger chains as well was the fantastic growth of the double-drive-through burger segment, led by such chains as Rally's, Checker's, Hot'n Now, Juicy Lucy's and at least a dozen more, all promising delivery to the customer in less than 40 seconds.

The burger goes on.


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