The Story Of Kewpee Hamburgers: One Of America’s Original Fast Food Restaurants

Fast-food is a part of everyday life, with most people having eaten it on at least one occasion. For the most part, it’s cheap, easy, and dangerously delicious. Before there were glowing golden arches or Burger King signs on every street corner, there was a fast-food establishment called Kewpee Hamburgers that was paving the way for the rest. One of the oldest fast-food restaurants in the U.S., it once was all over the Midwest. Sadly, only a few are left today. See what happened to the once-promising fast-food joint.

There Are Only Five Remaining

If you’re looking to get your hands on some food from Kewpee to give it a try, chances are that there aren’t any in your area. Unbelievably, three of them can be found in the city of Lima, Ohio!

By MrTonyMoore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
By MrTonyMoore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The other two remaining establishments are in two different states in Racine, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to tell when you’re in front of one of a Kewpee.

A Unique Mascot

Well, if you’re wandering around one of these three cities and stumble upon a building with a sign featuring a large baby wearing just a hat, you’ll know that you’re in front of a Kewpee.

The giant babies might also be located on the roof, seemingly watching over the people walking below. Although this logo may seem a bit strange, it certainly does draw interest to the establishment and sets it apart from the rest.

It’s Like Most Fast-Food Restaurants

After walking beneath the Kewpee sign, customers are greeted by a pretty typical fast-food dining layout. There are booths lining the walls and free-standing tables in the middle to accommodate as many hungry people as possible.

Picture of inside
Backroads & Burgers/Twitter
Backroads & Burgers/Twitter

However, what makes the interior of Kewpee different from other major fast-food chains is its color scheme. Although the white tables aren’t anything special, all of the chairs and booths are a bright orange!

The Beginning Of A Legacy

The question is, how are these last five restaurants the only remaining Kewpee establishments of a chain that once ruled the Midwest? Although it may not seem like it was ever possible, these restaurants once dominated this whole entire area.

Lansing Cityspace
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

But how did they get their start and become so popular in the past? Well, as it turns out, the story of Kewpee goes back over 100 years and begins in the state of Michigan.

It First Opened Its Doors In 1918

Following the end of World War I, people now had the time to pursue the things that they had always wanted to, and not have to worry about the war effort any longer.

People eating
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

That’s exactly what happened in the town of Flint, Michigan when one restaurant first opened its doors in 1918. This eating establishment would turn out to be the first Kewpee ever, with the simple goal to sell hamburgers to the hungry people of the town.

Big Things Happened In 1923

If you want to get specific, the Kewpee brand wasn’t officially even established until 1923, four years after the opening of the first restaurant by a man named Sam Blair. At that time, the restaurant went under the title “Kewpee Hotels Hamburger.”

Picture of the restaurant

Having been officially opened under Kewpee in 1923, this doesn’t make it the oldest fast-food chain in the United States. Unfortunately, for Kewpee, two other establishments were ahead of them in this. But which were they?

The Other Two Are Still Around Today

The other two fast-food restaurants that came about before Kewpee were A&W and, of course, good old White Castle. Nevertheless, being the third-oldest fast-food organization in America is still an impressive title to hold.

Picture of A&W
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

What’s even more impressive is that it’s still much older than some of the most popular restaurants in the world like McDonald’s, which didn’t appear on the scene until 1955! Kewpee was truly one of the originals.

The Story Behind The Name

Seeing a Kewpee restaurant for the first time, it’s not likely you know the explanation behind the name or how it correlates to its unique baby mascot. Well, if you ever read or collected what were known as “funny papers” many years ago, you may have an advantage.

Picture of O'Neill
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Back in 1909, an illustrator named Rose O’Neill (pictured) began drawing characters called “Kewpies,” named this because they looked similar to Cupid. Her illustrations became popular enough to be featured in newspapers.

Kewpies Exploded In Popularity

Although Kewpies may have had their start in Rose O’Neill’s mind, they eventually found their way to the newspapers, in which they became exceedingly popular.

Woman Posing with Pile of Kewpie Dolls
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Before long, the Kewpie characters were turned into dolls that were made out of either paper or plastic, and were loved by children at the time, which could be won at carnivals or even bought at stores. At this point, the Kewpie characters were so well known that they caught the attention of a burger restaurant in Michigan.

Adopting The Name

The up-and-coming burger joint saw all the buzz around the Kewpie characters and decided to incorporate it into their own business model. So, not only did they take an adaptation of the Kewpie name, but they also took one of their characters to be their mascot, much like McDonald’s did with Ronald McDonald.

Then, after establishing their name and mascot in 1926, Kewpee changed in another drastic way when a man named Ed Adams bought the trademark.

Making Progress

Under Ed Adams, the business began to expand. By 1928, another Kewpee restaurant was built in Lima, Ohio. The two people responsible for this location were Hoyt and Julia Wilson. Of course, the restaurant back then certainly looks a lot different than it does today.

Men in front of restaurant

At first, Kewpee started out as a small shop located right off the sidewalk. There, customers were able to stand and order their food at the window. According to The Lima News, a hamburger only cost around five cents at the time.

Popular Menu Items

Back then, hamburgers were the backbone of the Kewpee menu. However, they also offered pies and had a variety of beverages that included root beer, cola, milkshakes, or coffee. Also, if someone was feeling cheeky, they could even order a beer for just ten cents!

For over a decade, the Kewpee in downtown Lima remained much of the same until it received a makeover in 1939. It was then that a legitimate restaurant was built on top of the small structure.

They Were Progressive

Although Kewpee was making headway on their business by building a true restaurant, many of their innovations happened outside of the actual establishment. Just five years after Kewpee opened the doors to their new restaurant, they began to offer curbside service.

Picture of parking lot

At the time, this was a rudimentary form of what would become a “drive-in” and later evolve into what we know today as a “drive-thru.”

They Had A Unique Parking System

In the restaurant’s early years, their parking lot was relatively small, which resulted in a lot of accidents and risky situations when it came to parking and leaving. So, Kewpee thought outside the box and installed something that nobody saw coming.

Picture of turntable

Right in the ground, they built essentially a giant Lazy Susan that people could park their car on and would be rotated towards the exit when they were ready to leave. However, the turntable system was eventually removed once another parking lot was added.

Business Was Booming…But Not For Long

It was at this time that Kewpee really took off. Between the 1920s and the 1940s, more than 400 stores opened up in that area in the United States, with some even popping up in New York! Yet, the fun wouldn’t last.

Picture of Kewpees

Unfortunately, World War II came along, which resulted in Kewpee’s growth suffering. This was because the country’s beef supply was extremely low, which led to many restaurants that relied on beef going out of business.

There Were Some Major Changes To The Business

Ed Adams was the president of Kewpee Hotel Systems Inc., in 1965, the same year that Kewpee Hotels transferred the Kewpee trademark to Adams’ company. During this transfer, the number of Kewpee locations drastically decreased in 1967 after Kewpee Hotel Systems, Inc. demanded full franchising arrangements and a percentage of the total profits.

This resulted in a large number of the locations that didn’t agree to this either close their doors or change their name. Yet, there were still a few that remained.

Shutt Had A Dream New Plan

When Stub Wilson, the owner of the restaurant in Lima, Ohio passed away, he passed the torch of the shop to Harrison Shutt. Shutt had big plans for the company and decided to establish another Kewpee in Lima.

Picture of restaurant
Facebook/Courtney Moody
Facebook/Courtney Moody

Shutt succeeded in his goal and the second Kewpee in Lima was opened in the western part of the city in 1972. Not only that, but it could accommodate up to 65 customers!

He Wanted A Third Location

Even though Shutt already had two locations in the same city while other stores in the country were hurting, he had his eyes set on a third one.

Picture of Kewpee food
Kewpee Restaurant/Facebook
Kewpee Restaurant/Facebook

This came to pass in 1981 when Shutt opened his third Kewpee in Lima, which turned out to be the biggest of them all. Sadly, today, those three restaurants run by Shutt and the other two in different states are all that is left of the Kewpee legacy today.

Kewpee Was An Inspiration

While the five remaining Kewpees are all that’s left of the once-successful fast-food chain, the spirit of the restaurant very well might be living on through another hamburger company.

Dave Thomas Holding a Tray of Food
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

Rumor has it that Kewpee inspired businessman Dave Thomas to open up his own fast-food franchise: Wendy’s. Supposedly, Thomas had grown up near a Kewpee and couldn’t get enough of the simple concept of serving delicious burgers and fries.

People Praise The Place

Across the Internet, you can find Facebook pages and chatrooms with people discussing their fond memories at whichever Kewpee location they used to frequent. Some even go so far as to say things like, “We don’t want Burger King and McDonald’s. They can’t hold a candle next to Kewpees.”

Although Shutt has explained that Kewpee could expand if they wanted to, they would rather keep it small and local just as it is for fear of it turning into something else otherwise. It’s safe to say that their loyal fans approve of this!