The Burger King in Mattoon, Illinois, is not your typical Burger King. You won’t find Whoppers or chicken fries on the menu, and while there is a drive-up window, it won’t resemble almost any other modern drive-thru with a two-way speaker. Instead, you’ll find fresh burgers with beef straight from the meat market, a single window, and employees who run out to cars with a paper and pencil in tow when the line gets too long (a la Portillo’s, fellow Midwesterners). The biggest difference, though, is that this Burger King isn’t affiliated at all with the fast-food chain owned by the $28.65 billion Restaurant Brands International group, and it’s the one restaurant in the U.S. with a trademark that Burger King’s parent company has been unable to wrest away.
Ernie Drummond, the owner of Mattoon’s Burger King, says that people sometimes do get confused when they first visit, expecting traditional fast food with pre-made burgers and heat lamps. Instead, they’re met with a homey small-town feel and a burger that goes onto the grill fresh when you order and requires a little more of a wait than those at other Burger Kings. But customers, especially the students from the nearby Eastern Illinois University, get used to it, and after a few weeks of puzzled looks in the fall, everyone knows what to expect.
“We never want to change that,” he says; the trend of personless service just doesn’t provide the experience they’re going for at Burger King. When Drummond bought the business in 2017, coming back to it after 25 years of working at the restaurant (starting in 1977 as a teenager and working his way up from line cook to general manager), he wanted to emulate the feel that the restaurant had when it opened.
When Drummond started, Gene and Betty Hoots owned the restaurant. They started Burger King as a companion restaurant to their ice cream stand, Frigid Queen, which the Hootses bought in 1952; Burger King debuted just two years later. Coincidentally, that’s the same year that the national chain opened its first Burger King in Florida (the follow up to Insta-Burger King). Around the same time Mattoon Burger King opened, Gene Hoots registered the trademark to “Burger King” in the state of Illinois — the Burger King fast-food chain didn’t start franchising until seven years later, in 1959. In 1968, Hoots brought a lawsuit to the chain restaurant to prevent them from opening any more chain Burger Kings in the state of Illinois: The fast-food chain had opened its first Illinois Burger King in Skokie in 1961 and had more than 50 “Burger King” restaurants operating throughout the state.
The courts ruled that the trademark was valid, preventing any corporate Burger Kings to be built within a 20-mile radius of 1508 Charleston Avenue in Mattoon (the court considered that range to be the Mattoon Burger King’s market area). The court also ruled that because Hoots had no intention to open more Burger Kings in Illinois, the fast-food giant could continue operations in the existing chain-affiliated locations. That ruling still holds strong, and today, the closest Burger King to the Mattoon Burger King lies approximately 25 miles north, in Tuscola, Illinois, according to Google Maps.
And although this lawsuit is the biggest draw to the Burger King in Mattoon for the rest of the world, it’s much more than a fun piece of trivia for those who live nearby. Ask the longtime residents of Mattoon and they probably have a story from their childhood about the Burger King. After 65 years, the restaurant has seen its fair share of high schoolers coming in on their lunch hour, restaurant anniversaries with a six burgers for a dollar special (harkening back to when the burgers were 19 cents each), and couples that have met at the restaurant, including the current owner, Ernie Drummond, and his wife, Jodi. Today, it’s still the kind of place you see kids and their parents standing outside during summer evenings, crowded around 6 or 6:30 p.m.
The menu started simply: fries and a smash burger — a Steak ’n Shake-esque burger that starts as a ball of beef on the grill, and is then smashed with two spatulas, creating a thin patty with a nice sear — and eventually grew to include dishes like a pork tenderloin, grilled chicken sandwich, and hot dogs. As for ice cream, the Frigid Queen menu is still available, with shakes, cones, and sundaes.
When Burger King was built, it was in the middle of the bustling part of town — between Charleston Avenue and Broadway Avenue from 14th to 21st streets — according to Oscar Brown, a lifetime resident of Mattoon. Its location made it a prime spot for people to stop in regularly. Brown was in high school in the early ’50s and remembers getting shakes from Frigid Queen before going on his newspaper route on his bicycle.
Brown isn’t the only one who recalls the ritual of getting shakes on his newspaper route. Earl Armstrong Jr. also remembers the lucky boys with evening newspaper routes. Armstrong, who was born and raised in Mattoon, says he had lunch at Burger King every day his junior and senior years of high school. He always hoped the cash register would print a red star on his sales receipt, which would win him a free order of fries.
One time, Armstrong asked if he could get a triple cheeseburger, since the restaurant was known for its double cheeseburger. “They looked at Mr. Hoots there, and he said, ‘Yeah, fix Earl a triple cheeseburger if that’s what he wants’ — and now they have it on their menu.”
Many of Mattoon’s residents — who number just over 18,000 people — have memories of the Burger King. Drummond’s son, Evan, recalls going to Burger King every Sunday after church with friends and playing Ms. Pac-Man, and tells people he got his start in accounting by “counting change from the previous nights drawers for [Drummond] as a kid” while his father worked on schedules.
Another longtime Mattoon resident, Earl Walden, who owns Walden’s Appliances, a long-standing store just a few blocks north of the Burger King, remembers Hoots as an active member of the community, serving on community boards and giving kids deals on burgers and ice cream after their baseball practices and games.
These memories and traditions are the things that Drummond now hopes to continue with Burger King. He’s brought back the April anniversary sales that Hoots instated on the occasion of Burger King’s 35th anniversary, when customers could come in and get six burgers for a dollar for one day only. He remembers that it was the biggest nightmare when he worked it, coming back from college to man the grill. Now, Drummond’s changed the special up a bit to include 67-cent burgers, banana splits, and ice cream sundaes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. After all, a smash burger is no small task, and Drummond has to ask former employees to come back to help make burgers for that one special day, just like he did in college.
Every day, Drummond works behind the counter, packing and calling out numbers for orders to be picked up — and over the years he’s grown to sound like another longtime employee, Bill Douglas, who used to call the order numbers. He says that some customers don’t even realize it isn’t Douglas; when others see Douglas around town, they mention to Drummond that they’ve seen his dad, despite there being no relation.
It’s those little things that make Drummond excited to run the business. His son, Evan, notes that he expects his father to continue working in the restaurant every day. As for Drummond himself, he hopes to continue to serve the same product and service for years to come, and would eventually love to pass the restaurant on to a family member to “continue the unique story and legacy.”
Elizabeth Atkinson is a restaurant, bars, and lifestyle freelance writer based in Chicago.
Lacuna & Co is a photographer based in Chicago.
Editor: Erin DeJesus