Ohio Icon: Kewpee® Hamburgers

Kewpee Hamburgers, Lima

Location: Besides the original Kewpee Hamburgers shop in downtown Lima, there are two other Kewpees on the city’s east and west sides.

Provenance: The roots of Lima’s Kewpee eateries go back to Flint, Michigan, where Sam Blair opened a “Kewpee Hotel” hamburger stand in 1923. The popularity of Kewpie dolls, a cherub-like character that first appeared in an early 1900s comic strip, inspired its name, and because the hamburger shop pioneered fast food, as well as drive-through service, additional Kewpees soon sprouted. By the 1940s, some 400 Kewpee restaurants dotted the culinary landscape from New York to Wisconsin.

In 1928, Stub Wilson and his wife, June, opened a Kewpee on Elizabeth Street in the heart of Lima. Though tiny, it had both walk-up and drive-up windows, and along with 5-cent burgers, the Wilsons sold root beer, cola, milkshakes, pie, and coffee. Needing more space in 1939 for Lima’s growing number of Kewpee fans, the Wilsons replaced their first hamburger stand with a porcelain enamel and stainless steel, Streamline Moderne-style building. They mounted a Kewpie doll over the entrance and debuted a now-beloved local treat — the frosted malt, an ice cream-based concoction served in an ice-cold soda glass.

After Stub Wilson’s death in 1967, Harry Shutt managed the restaurant, and he acquired ownership in 1980. Shutt also oversaw the opening of Lima’s two other Kewpees and put french fries on the menu. Today, Shutt is president of Kewpee, Inc., while Scott Shutt, his son, is vice president and general manager.

Significance: The downtown Kewpee is a Lima landmark that lives up to its slogan, “Your Grandpappy Ate Here.” By purchasing all the Kewpee trademarks and copyrights, the Shutts also made Lima the unofficial Kewpee Hamburgers capital. Of the five Kewpees known to exist, three are in Lima, and the others are Kewpee, Inc., licensees in Lansing, Mich., and Racine, Wisc.

Currently: According to Scott Shutt, the secret of Kewpee’s success is offering a top-notch product. “Gourmet hamburgers are all the rage now,” says Shutt, “but we’ve always had gourmet-quality burgers. We just don’t charge a gourmet price.”

Kewpee burgers are made from fresh, local beef that the Shutts’ employees grind and patty daily. They also use specially selected tomatoes from Tennessee; hydroponically grown Bibb lettuce; and buns still made from the Wilsons’ recipe by a Lima bakery. A regular Kewpee burger costs $2.10, and the best-selling special burger with lettuce and tomato sells for $2.30. Frosted malt prices range from $1.30 to $2.60.

It’s a little-known fact that: The only days Lima’s Kewpee restaurants close are Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.