Monday, June 25, 2018

Similar, but Legally Distinct




I’m a sucker for a good local or regional restaurant chain, even when it doesn’t quite fit the Broken Chains theme. Brands like Taco John’s, Grand Traverse Pie Company, Shari’s, Tudor’s Biscuit World, and Skyline all lack a national presence, but are places I seek out when I travel. All are far too prosperous to be considered broken chains, so I’ve held off on writing about them here. Until recently I thought another favorite of mine, Halo Burger, with 11 locations mostly in and around Flint, Michigan was just another thriving local chain, but a little research revealed multiple connections that made me realize that while Halo Burger is not a broken chain itself, it’s definitely broken chain adjacent, and I feel that makes it appropriate to cover here.

Samuel V. Blair began selling hamburgers in Flint, Michigan in 1923. At the time, for reasons I’d rather not ponder, figurines of naked toddlers, known as Kewpie Dolls were popular. In an attempt capitalize on this popularity without paying any licensing fees, Blair named his hamburger stand “Kewpee Hotel Hamburgs” Note the similar, but legally distinct spelling of Kewpie. Blair expanded his business rapidly over the next two decades, peaking at around 400 locations around the American side of the Great Lakes in the early 1940s. Signage and packages featured a figure that was similar to, but legally distinct from, the chain’s sort of namesake Kewpie Doll.

Samuel Blair retired in 1944, but the Kewpee chain continued with operators paying regular flat royalty fees to Blair and later his estate after his death. Blair’s Flint, Michigan Kewpee restaurants were purchased by Bill Thomas in 1958. Meanwhile, the rights to the Kewpee name and licensing were purchased by Ed Adams, who ran the Kewpee locations in Toledo, Ohio.

Adams sought to modernize the Kewpee business model and demanded Kewpee operators sign a full franchise agreement and pay him a portion of the profits from their restaurants. Predictably, Kewpee operators changed the name of their restaurants, drastically altered their menus, and/or closed, all in the name of avoiding being forced into a franchise agreement. Bill Thomas’ response to Ed Adams was to break ties with Kewpee, and change the name of his restaurants to Halo Burger. Thus, Flint, Michigan, the city where Kewpee was born, suddenly found itself without any Kewpee locations.

Thomas took the Kewpee burger off the menu at Halo burger, and replaced it with the similar but legally distinct Q P burger (Note the second similar, but legally distinct spelling of “Kewpie”) and the chain began to evolve further from Kewpee, establishing its own brand identity, including unique buildings, signage, and new menu items including a Michigan olive burger.

In addition to the Halo Burger locations operating in Michigan, there are still five Kewpees open for business, three of which are in Lima, Ohio, less than half a day’s drive from Flint. Upon piecing this information together, I exclaimed, “Road trip!” to no one in particular, and set off to experience both Kewpee and Halo burger back to back.

I opted to visit the restaurants in reverse chronological order, heading to the Halo Burger locations in Flint first, mainly because I wanted to visit what seems to be Halo Burger’s flagship location in Downtown Flint, and it closes at 2 PM on weekends. The Downtown Flint Halo burger is located at the corner of Fourth and Saginaw streets, in a historic building that was once a Vernor’s Ginger Ale branded sandwich shop. Vernor’s is a big deal in Michigan. There’s still a massive Vernor’s themed mural on the side of the building next door featuring gnomes toting barrels of ginger ale. I park in the little lot next to the mural and walk in the door.



The original Kewpee/Halo location in Flint is long gone, but this seems to be the oldest operating Halo Burger location, having been open since the late fifties in a building that I would estimate dates back to the twenties. Upon entering the lobby, I’m struck by how much of the original architecture is left intact. The ceilings are high and the light fixtures and floors are original. There are ornate arches high above the food prep area. It’s early, and there’s no one else here. I order and my food comes up quickly. I take my tray back to the seating area which is in a room behind the main lobby. It’s nothing special with its old blue naugahyde booths, drop ceiling, and plain walls. It feels like an aging Arby’s in need of renovation, quite a contrast in comparison to the ornate room with the order counter. I pick a booth and examine my food.

Ornate ordering area 

Plain dining area 


I ate at a total of five Halo and Kewpee locations on this trip. When I do a single-theme trip like this one, I like to break it down meal by meal.




Meal #1
Location: Halo Burger 800 Saginaw Street, Flint, Michigan
Order: Q P Burger, Fries, Iced tea

Halo burger offers a diverse array of sandwiches including a fried jalapeno burger, the local favorite olive burger, and even a vegetarian black bean burger. Since I’m studying the connection between Halo Burger and Kewpee, I opt to stick with a classic. The burger comes fully dressed on a split top bun with a circular quarter pound patty cooked on a flat top and covered in nondescript fast food grade cheese. The fries are thick cut and on the crispy side. Thick and crispy is a good combination that’s tough to come by. The burger is good, but not great. It’s thick, sparingly seasoned patty and abundance of sauces and toppings, make for a taste and texture profile that’s oddly familiar, but more on that later.

Whenever I’m covering a chain that sells an olive burger, I have to try one. I’m not especially fond of olives, but making myself order and eat them is something of an inside joke I have with myself. I’m weird. Plus I want to check out another Halo Burger while I’m in the area.

I don't like olive burgers, but I can't stop eating them.

Meal #2
Location: Halo Burger 2248 East Hill Road, Grand Blanc, Michigan
Order: Olive Burger, Michigan Cherry shake

The olive burger tastes like the Q P burger I ate in Flint, but with green olives on it. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but I have yet to fully appreciate the appeal of the olive burger. The cherry shake is a limited time menu item, and it’s awesome. It has just enough cherry flavor without being overwhelmingly sour or tasting artificial. With a little chocolate, I bet it would taste a lot like the chocolate shakes that Hot ‘n Now used to have that had a cherry chocolate flavor. I may try and get a half cherry half chocolate shake the next time I’m here.

Modern Halo Burger in Grand Blanc, Michigan

This location feels like a nondescript fairly modern fast food building and has a large indoor play area in the front, but has a relatively small dining area. Maybe it was the shoes I was wearing but the tile floors feel slippery, like dangerously slippery, but they’re dry. I suspect the cleanup crew used too much floor wax. I’m beginning to suspect no two Halo Burger buildings are alike. This building is of course drastically different than the downtown Flint building, and my usual Halo Burger, just off I-75 in Birch Run, is a brutalist monstrosity constructed out of ribbed concrete blocks. I’ll have to hit a few more locations soon and try and get a feel for their corporate architecture. The walls here are lined with old photographs of the early Flint Kewpee Hotel locations with signs carefully photoshopped to read, “Halo Hotel.” The Kewpee connection is acknowledged on a large poster that outlines a brief history of the brand, carefully filtered through a corporate marketing department to gloss over the disagreement over franchising that caused the split from Kewpee.

The original image hanging at the downtown Flint location.

And the altered one at the Grand Blanc location. (Pardon the glare.)

Brutalist Halo Burger in Birch Run, Michigan 

Overall, Halo Burger feels like a reasonably modern fast food chain. Inconsistent architecture aside, signage, branding, and menus all feel current. They’ve even started offering breakfast recently. Halo Burger seems to have most things that the national chains have. As mentioned before, it’s not a true broken chain, but the product of half a century of divergent evolution after Bill Thomas parted ways with the very broken Kewpee chain. Later in my trip I would note how little resemblance it bears to Kewpee. Even the Q P burger has only superficial resemblance to the burgers I would eat at Kewpee.

The downtown Lima Kewpee, a really neat building with an exceptionally unsettling mascot. 

The interior has the same retro look...



...but suffers from the same aesthetic flaw. 

I had a three hour drive from Flint to Lima, Ohio to let my Halo Burgers digest. Lima is home to three of the five remaining restaurants bearing the Kewpee name. The three Lima locations seem to be truest to the original concept that grew to a 400 location chain before World War Two. My first stop is the downtown location, which seems to be the oldest, a small prewar building, clad in porcelain steel panels, not unlike White Castle and White Tower buildings from the same era. The inside and outside are spotless and seem to be in great shape overall. Sadly, the immaculate condition of the building doesn’t begin to make up for the fact that there’s a larger than life naked toddler statue standing over the door, with two more in the two front corners of the dining area. The rubber mask burger king can step aside as the creepiest fast food mascot, because the Kewpee baby is much more disturbing, crucified on an invisible cross, staring at me with its dead eyes while I’m trying to enjoy a historically significant hamburger. I know it’s meant to resemble but be legally distinct from the Kewpie dolls that were popular in the early twentieth century, but it’s a cultural reference that’s lost of most living people and it strikes me as being in questionable taste at best when viewed through a modern lens. Speaking of lenses, I felt seriously weird taking pictures of all these nude infant statues.



Meal #3
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers 111 North Elizabeth Street
Order: Cheeseburger with mayo, ketchup, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle, fries, Diet Dr. Pepper

In an interview shortly before his death, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas stated that his favorite place to eat as a youth in Kalamazoo, Michigan was Kewpee, and to the casual observer, the restaurant empire he’d go on to create has more than a few striking similarities to the beloved restaurant of his early years. The burger I ordered had a quarter pound square patty, with no seasoning to speak of. While Kewpee has no default burger toppings and asks every customer exactly which toppings they’d like on their burgers, when you top a Kewpee burger with the default Wendy’s toppings, it tastes just like a Wendy’s burger. Specifically, it tastes like a burger from Wendy’s prior to when they changed their original burgers to the “Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy” line a few years ago. The similar, but legally distinct Q P Burger at Halo Burger also tastes similar to a fully dressed burger from Kewpee. The similarities don’t stop there, however.

The mascot is just as unsettling on a burger wrapper. 
This slogan must have been written before the connection between cholesterol and heart disease was discovered. 





Meal #4
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers 1350 Bellfontaine Avenue, Lima, Ohio
Order: Frosted Malt, Chili

The dining room here is massive, full of bright orange knockoff Eames seating. The walls are made of brick with an odd shiny green glaze. The building itself seems to be from the early seventies, if not a little older, and has a bright yellow roof that would fit right in between a Howard Johnson’s and a Stuckey’s. There’s another giant naked baby statue standing against one wall. The place feels like the setting of some forgotten Stanley Kubrick movie. All three of the Lima Kewpee locations feel like relics of various bygone eras. The buildings, while beautiful and squeaky clean are far from modern. No combo meals are offered, and employees wear paper hats and aprons, not to be fun and retro, but because that’s what they’ve always worn. Everything about Kewpee seemed to have stopped evolving around 1970, right around the time when the chain was falling apart. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, I love a good anachronistic fast food experience, but in comparison to the thoroughly modern Halo Burger operation that evolved from Kewpee, it seems the two brands with common ancestry no longer have much in common.

Kubruckian dining area 


Seriously?

The ordering system here seems to be organized chaos. A woman working the counter takes my order while I’m standing near the back of the order line, and I’m called to the front of the line, cutting at least ten people when my small, simple order is ready. The chili is thin and not terribly spicy. There are kidney beans and it’s served with crackers. Had they added diced green peppers and onions to the chili, it would be virtually indistinguishable from Wendy’s chili. Dave Thomas infamously put chili on the menu at Wendy’s as a way to use leftover hamburger patties. It’s pretty clear that he got that idea from Kewpee and attempted to imitate their chili recipe, with a few added ingredients to make it similar but legally distinct. If you’re detecting a pattern here, you can probably guess why I was curious about the frosted malt. Served in a small drink cup with a spoon, not a straw, and light tan in color, with a mild chocolate flavor the Kewpee frosted malt is everything the Wendy’s Frosty wishes it could be. Where the Frosty is full of air, and slightly grainy, the frosted malt is smooth and dense. Every Frosty I consume from this point forward will taste like a cheap imitation of the Kewpee frosted malt.

Thanks to decades of marketing, Dave Thomas has the image of a wholesome, working class father, who found his way to success with his own original restaurant concept. In my opinion that narrative doesn’t quite match reality. When Dave Thomas was putting together his Wendy’s concept in the late sixties, Kewpee was falling apart. The attempt to modernize the business model led to the loss of locations and franchisees. The product was fundamentally good, but the brand had failed to evolve to keep up with the fast food boom that was happening in the sixties. The Kewpee brand was doomed to obscurity in the absence of a viable business plan. Enter Dave Thomas, the original Hamburglar, who opens up in Columbus Ohio in 1969, selling food that is similar to, but legally distinct from core menu items from Kewpee. With his background with KFC and Arthur Treacher’s, Thomas is familiar with franchising and marketing, and is able to become very wealthy selling Wendy’s as a modern restaurant with old fashioned food. Early Wendy’s customers in what had been Kewpee’s core market knew exactly what “Old fashioned” meant the second they laid eyes on those square patties. Robble robble indeed.


One last dining area, note the infants nailed to the walls for... reasons. 




Meal #5
Location: Kewpee Hamburgers, 2111 Allentown Road, Lima, Ohio
Order: Cheeseburger with pickles, onions, and mustard, pecan pie, Diet Dr. Pepper

Dave Thomas famously liked his Wendy’s burgers with only pickles, onions, and mustard, and my theory is he first ordered them this way from Kewpee, so I wanted to get a taste of the burger that inspired his similar, but legally distinct offerings at Wendy’s. It’s a good combination of flavors. Maybe I’ll start ordering my Wendy’s burgers this way. Also, I got pecan pie, because I like pecan pie. Kewpee had a few different pies available. I wish Wendy’s had similar, but legally distinct pies.

This was my favorite building exterior of the trip. Note the separate smaller yellow roof for the drive thru window.

The movie, The Founder, made the story of Ray Kroc’s creeping takeover of McDonald’s from the eponymous McDonald brothers common knowledge. I suspect the point in history in which Halo Burger and Wendy’s evolved from the relic that was Kewpee could also make for a fascinating piece of cinema. Hopefully the set designers could find a way to make the Kewpee statues significantly less creepy. If they don’t, it would go over about as well as the Wendy’s Superbar, which by the way was similar to, but legally distinct from, the Rax Endless Salad Bar.

7 comments:

  1. The Dave Thomas links are fascinating. I agree the kewpees are krepee. 😕

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  2. One interesting thing about the kewpees in Lima is that they really offer very good wages to their employees. I believe they also offer pretty much full benefits for full-time employees also. Many of them have worked there for years and years. Just not something you find in fast food nowadays.

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    1. Good to know. The staff was definitely on top of things at all three Lima locations.

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  3. Kewpees is still serving up great burgers in Racine Wisconsin

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    1. I’d like to visit that one as well to see how they compare to the ones in Lima. There appears to be one in Lansing, Michigan as well.

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  4. Another great post, I had no idea that Kewpee or Halo Burger even existed! Also I loved the picture of the photoshoped vs. non-photoshoped posters.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Kewpee and Halo Burger are worth a stop if you’re ever near one.

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