02 January 2012

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: George Webb's

I was recently returning from a late evening in Milwaukee and feeling a bit peckish when, passing a George Webb's restaurant, I remembered that every branch of the southeastern Wisconsin diner chain is open 24 hours.

I swung my car into the strip mall that contained the diner and took a seat at the long counter. There were eight other people there at that late hour, half of them stuffing solid food into their booze-filled bellies. This is not to say the atmosphere was unsavory. While some Webb's might have fallen into the "greasy spoon" categories in years past, and the chain has a reputation of sorts as a haven for undesirables, today the chain is mostly clean and respectable.

George Webb opened his first hamburger joint in Milwaukee in 1948. It was a family business; the whole Webb clan worked there. To get around a city ordinance that banned establishments from being open 24 hours a day, he declared that "George Webb Restaurants are open 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, seven days a week and on Sundays!" Son Jim Webb opened the first franchise in 1953, taking over one of the restaurants his dad had opened. George passed away four years later and Jim took over, running the company until the early '80s, when the Webbs sold the chain to franchisee Dave Stram. In 2005, Stram sold the comapny to Phil Anderson, a distributor of rubber seals.

George Webb quickly earned the loyalty of Wisconsinites through cheap prices (the price of a burger or breakfast here is still amazingly inexpensive) and various operating quirks that gave Webb's a distinct identity. In addition to being open 24 hours (unusual in these parts, where the sidewalks are rolled up around 9:30 p.m.), he would do things like hang out signs saying "Free Rabbit Lunch Tomorrow," and offer to pay customers $10 for 1,893 pennies. Webb's also annually predicts that the Milwaukee Brewers will win open their season with 12 straight wins. In 1987, this actually came to pass, and Webb's celebrated the event by handing out free hamburgers. People lined up outside the restaurants for blocks to receive the free grub (myself included).

Webb's most famous and enduring oddity are the two clocks that hang side by side in every restaurant. If you notice, one clock is set one minute faster than the other. This has something to do with Webb's trickery in getting around the local 24-hour rule. In the late 50's, there was one George Webb Restaurant with the two clocks, with a sign under one, that read "CORRECT TIME IN THE CITY OF MILWAUKEE"; the other clock had no minute hand nor hour hand, just the seconds hand and the sign under that clock read "CORRECT TIME FOR THOSE WHO NO LONGER CARE."

Webb's almost went bankrupt in 2008, leading to a power struggle within the organization, but the company eventually pulled through. Some branches closed. There are now 36 restaurants.

The food, by the way, is pretty good. As good as a $3 burger should be. And the chili is somewhat more than good.

1 comment:

Little Earthquake said...

Good memories. When I was in high school in Madison we used to go to Milwaukee for the state basketball tourney (Catholic league) at the MECCA. Our school booked rooms at the Hyatt and there was a lot of clandestine partying going on at night. In the morning there was always a hungover trek to the George Webb across the street to eat a greasy breakfast and smoke cigs. Loved Webb's.