Classic Kewpee cooks up doll-icious eats
In 1909, artist Rose O'Neil designed the first Kewpie doll as a magazine illustration for Ladies' Home Journal. By the '20s, the big-eyed, often naked cartoon-like drawings came to life as a toy doll highly coveted by children, and the Kewpie image appeared on everything from books to soap boxes.
Around 1925, Dick Sanford and Allen Durkee moved to Racine and opened a restaurant franchise called Kewpee (note the spelling difference). Before World War II, there were more than 200 Kewpee restaurants, but today, only six remain. Three are in Lima, Ohio, two are in Lansing, Mich., and one is in Racine.
Today, Kewpee -- also called "The Kewpee" -- is one of the oldest hamburger franchises in the country. It is also one of Racine's dining gems, contributing heart and history to the city's Downtown.
"The Kewpee is part of Racine peoples' lives. It is always there and always has been in many peoples' minds," says David Kristopeit, the former owner of the Racine Kewpee that's now owned by his brother-in-law, Richard Buehrens.
According to an article in a Kalamazoo newspaper, Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's franchise, was inspired by the now-defunct Kewpee in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Kewpee specializes in hand-pressed hamburgers and cheeseburgers wrapped in white paper embossed with a Kewpie doll. The Kewpee menu is small but solid: burgers, homemade chili, grilled cheese, fish sandwiches, fries, home-brewed root beer and thick shakes or malts.
The Horlick Malted Milk Company, which was headquartered in Racine for about 100 years until the '70s, invented the malt recipe.
The Kewpee burger is larger than a McDonald's hamburger, and when ordered with "the works," features chunky diced onions along with a healthy slather of ketchup and mustard. The fries are perfect: crinkle-cut, medium sized and crispy on the outside, while hot and soft on the inside. The malts are thick and rich, topped with whipped cream and served in a retro malt glass.
The most expensive item on the Kewpee menu is the double cheeseburger at $2.65. The Kewpee burger is $1.35, the toasted cheese $1.10, a fish sandwich is $1.90 and a malt is $2.15.
Kewpee T-shirts are classics, featuring a Kewpie doll wearing a chef's hat and the words, "Hamburg Pickle On Top, Makes Your Heart Go Flippity-Flop!" They are available on the Web site or at the diner for $8.95.
In 1962, a city parking structure was built over the small Kewpee diner. By the '90s, the structure's ramp was determined unsafe and unfixable, and there was no way to demolish the structure without damaging Kewpee. So, the restaurant moved to its present location and reopened on May 31, 1997.
The new structure is similar to the old one: it has an art deco design, features horseshoe-shaped lunch counters, a smattering of tables and between 300 and 400 Kewpie dolls in a large display case and in framed photos. Even the white wall tiles are embossed with Kewpie images.
Somehow, despite all the dolls, Kewpee gets away without being the least bit creepy. It's bright and upbeat and almost always packed with a variety of customers from all walks of life.
"Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. That is our client base -- from all walks of life, from every status and occupation," says Kristopeit. "Parents bring their children in and we hear them say that their parents brought them in when they were young."
Shorewood's Mollie Boutell-Butler, 35, grew up in Racine and went to Kewpee as a kid and high school student. Today, she doesn't indulge in burgers anymore, but retains fond memories of the diner.
"Nothing beats going to Kewpee during the lunch rush, when the little grill is completely full of burgers and the place is packed with little old ladies, guys in business suits, and local crazies," says Boutell-Butler. "The energy is high, and it's just plain fun."
Years back I was in Kewpee's and sat next to a well-dressed woman who said she was a former Racineite who now lived in Milwaukee and was with a group of friends who were shopping at Porter's Furniture shop. She begged off, saying she had another appointment, but her appointment was sneaking off to have a well-remembered Kewpee. I have a granddaughter who eats only chicken or ham and really likes Kewpee's fried chicken bun sandwiches.
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