Four years ago, I went well out of my way to visit Kewpee Hamburgers in Racine, Wisconsin. I went because the fast food restaurant is one of only six franchises left in what was once a considerable Midwestern chain, and the only one left in Wisconsin. And the obscure inspired me. But I visited on a Sunday and, Racine apparently being a pious burg, everything was shut up tighter than a drum.
It took me until this month to find a second opportunity to visit Kewpee, a hamburger joint that reportedly inspired Dave Thomas to found Wendy's. This time I got in. It was a Thursday afternoon and there were few people about, inside or out. Racine's one of those mid-sized American cities whose downtown heart stopped beating sometime in the 1970s and has never quite sprung back to life. The sidewalks are deserted.
Kewpee was actually founded in Racine, back in the 1920s, though most of the surviving restaurants are today found in Lima, Ohio. The place on Wisconsin Street has gone through a few renovations. It doesn't look anything like it did back in the 1920's (below), but the current building—a facsimile built in the late '90s—is remarkably close to what stood in the 1940s. (You can read about the restaurant's complicated history here.) And it's in the same location it always was. The interior sports old-fashioned diner design, with two curves of counter surrounded by stools that sit remarkably low. (You'll feel like a kid sitting in them.)
The walls are decorated with tiles featuring the crazy Kewpee Doll mascot, and there's a wide display case filled with Kewpee memorabilia, not all of it specifically associated with the chain. The staff was hilarious, extremely casual and candid, and full of local gossip.
And the burger? Well, it was fine. Not terribly special, but simply a tasty diner burger. If it wasn't perceptibly square—as Kewpee burgers are supposed to be—neither was it round. It comes with mustard, ketchup, pickle and raw onions if you don't specify otherwise. The burger arrived with lightening speed; I think I waited two minutes. And the food is crazy cheap. Few things on the menu rose above $3.
I bought a Kewpee sweatshirt. I regret not having purchased an official Kewpee wristwatch. I took the shirt home in the bag below. Kewpee has mottos to beat the band. I don't know which I like best.