How This Illinois 'Burger King' Has Defied the Global Chain with the Same Name
This rogue restaurant has been slinging burgers—but not Whoppers—for over 60 years.
All photos by the author
As you may or may not have heard, Burger King is currently offering a one-cent Whopper deal, which is unlocked by downloading the fast food chain’s smartphone app and placing an order within 600 feet of a McDonald’s restaurant—a deal that’s perceived as a troll move toward the brand’s biggest rival.
But one restaurant has been trolling the Burger King corporation for more than 50 years. It’s the original Burger King in Mattoon, Illinois, which was founded by Gene and Betty Hoots in 1952.
In that year, the Hootses purchased the Frigid Queen ice cream stand from Gene’s uncle, according to the Illinois Times, and later began selling hamburgers and fries. Then, they renamed the restaurant ‘Burger King’ in 1959.
The restaurant is not affiliated with the massive Burger King brand we all know (which now also owns Canadian chain Tim Hortons), and just as what happened to the original McDonald’s in Ray Croc biopic The Founder, it’s been a tension point for decades. But unlike the fate of the original McDonald’s, the original Burger King has stood its ground virtually unchanged in the same location at 1508 Charleston Ave. for more than 50 years.
The “real” Burger King began as a stand called Insta-Burger King in Jacksonville, Florida in 1953. Dave Edgerton and James McLamore purchased the restaurant and founded the Florida-based corporation we know as Burger King the following year, beginning with a first location in Miami and rapidly expanding across the US in the years to follow. The company opened its first Illinois location in Skokie in 1961, according to the Illinois Times, and had 50 restaurants in the state six years later.
Despite the Hootses having already trademarked their restaurant in the state of Illinois, McLamore and Edgerton also trademarked their brand with the federal government. The Hootses sued in state court; then, the Florida company turned around and counter-sued in federal court. Eventually, the case made its way to the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to Ernie Drummond, the Mattoon Burger King’s current owner, the Hootses came to an agreement with the corporate giant in 1968 whereby the chain isn’t allowed to open any locations within a 20-mile radius of the original Mattoon location as long as it’s in business. The court’s decision stands today as an important example of the Lanham Act, which is the country’s main law governing trademarks.
Gene Hoots sold the restaurant, which was eventually sold again to the now-57-year-old Drummond, who worked there for 25 years, starting there as a sophomore in high school in 1977.
Since becoming an owner, Drummond keeps his focus on maintaining quality control, with his sister Polly Bennett serving as the manager. He said Burger King hasn’t been in contact with him since he bought the place. Gene Hoots died last December at the age of 90, according to Drummond.
“[Gene] felt he was a legitimate businessman,” Drummond told MUNCHIES. “He didn't want the big corporation to step on him. It’s a testament to Gene’s character.”
Don’t expect to find a Whopper here. Instead, there’s the Hooters burger (yes—another familiar chain restaurant name), which includes a quarter-pound beef patty. The beef is purchased fresh each day from Morgan’s Meat Market six blocks away, Drummond said. Each patty is shaped into a ball and smashed on a flat-top grill, the same kind typically found in a diner. All burgers are made-to-order, and you can order your burger “dry,” a style in which much of the grease is eliminated from the patty before the burger is served. The double cheeseburger is by far the most popular item, Drummond said, and the restaurant offers a family deal of four burgers, with enough fries for three or four people, for just under $15.
Then, there’s the soft-serve ice cream, which is also super-popular with locals (especially the lemon flavor). The original Frigid Queen building, which is not currently used, stands in the same location several feet away from the restaurant. Mattoon is a baseball town, and in the summer, Burger King has offered 25-cent ice cream cones for Little Leaguers who stop in, according to neighborhood resident David Bowen. Bowen described a scene with dozens of kids from each team, wearing their team colors, descending upon the restaurant for ice cream after their games. Now 61-years-old, Bowen still remembers coming to Burger King for ice cream during his own childhood.
“It’s a tradition,” Bowen told MUNCHIES. “I did it when I was a kid. It’s nice to have something like this.”
Others know Burger King for the candy eyeballs they put on some of the cones. Brittany Walbright, a native of nearby Shelbyville who now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, told MUNCHIES she came to Burger King exclusively for the ice cream eyeballs.
“I would specifically stop there for those cones if I was passing through,” Walbright said. “At 32, I still request the eyes.”
Burger King corporate didn’t respond to an email inquiry for comment about their rogue cousin. While the chain continues its global march, Drummond doesn’t see a point in expanding his business, although he claims he could if he wants to. His restaurant is doing just fine, and is actually having a record year in terms of sales, he added. Every fall semester, according to Drummond, a class from nearby Eastern Illinois University tours the restaurant to hear its history.
“It's kind of a neat David versus Goliath kind of thing,” Drummond said. “It's something everybody needs to see at least once.”