What local burger joints offer that fast food chains can’t

Two cheeseburgers and french fries in a wrapper on the hood of a car

A photo: Josh Wussow

As a resident of Wisconsin, my heart is firmly Culver country. Among other things, this means that I will never be too far from the oily embrace of a good hamburger. But even when one of the best regional franchises is within easy reach, I often feel the need to go off the grid.

This is where Chip’s, my local burger shop, comes into play. With few locations, these classic cars are as worn as they are loved. And if you think about it, I bet you have a supplier like that near you. Here’s a quick reflection on why they might deserve another look.

Vintage hamburger chips sign and an ice cream cone shaped sign next to it

A photo: Josh Wussow

Food flavored with locality

If you have spent more than ten minutes reading about wineyou’ve probably seen the word “terroir“. It is essentially a French term that sums up the idea that soil, weather, and environmental factors give a culture its unique flavor. And it’s not just about wine. It is also used by producers and consumers of coffee, tobacco, tomatoes and other products.

And, I would say, hamburgers. Just take a look at regional styles like green chilli cheeseburger or nice name Mississippi Slugburger. I would say that their best examples are not found in pristine canteens. No, you need a place where the smell of the grill has had time to penetrate the false ceiling and bench seats. And even if your local burger doesn’t have a special recipe or secret ingredient, so what? After all, good food is the best trick of all.

Hand holding a double cheeseburger with the bite taken out

A photo: Josh Wussow

Smaller seats provide a more memorable dining experience.

Perhaps no place I’ve been is closer to this blazing sun than Chip’s hamburgers in Wisconsin Rapids. You glimpse curious angles of his appearance and the years smear behind you like grilled meatballs. The menu is large, dense and almost without pictures. The noise canceling of a car speaker is loud enough to be heard from a corner booth with a slight tilt of the table top. There’s a condiment station next to the soda dispenser, and on the third pump next to the ketchup and mustard, “Chip Sauce” is written in indelible marker. This is, top to bottom, a different dining experience.

Burger shaped sign on Chip's lawn with the inscription "Have a good day"

A photo: Josh Wussow

Maybe it’s a little romantic. I confess that in my last few visits, the restaurant served not so much as a “fairy castle of nostalgia” as “a set of walls in which crimes against my ventricles were committed.” The food is simple, affordable and good: french fries, burgers, lots of side dishes and desserts.options. My guess is that the patties are probably frozen. But as the menu sign says, “ALL BURGERS ARE 100% PURE BEEF AND COOKED ON THE ANGLES (NOT FRIED WITH FAT).” This is Chip’s capital, not mine, but the essence is well understood and tasteful.

And that hand-drawn slogan at the exit of the diner: “Have a nice day for chips”? Like me No be fascinated by it?

View of Chip's house from the parking lot, a small mid-century modern building.

A photo: Josh Wussow

Local businesses are moving away from the big chains’ “artificial sweeteners”

I could go on and on about this for pages (and maybe someday I will), but one of the most annoying things about huge franchises is their emphasis on an all-powerful “brand”. Almost every network has its own culture and language, with all the weight of marketing that comes with it. And sometimes, with the endless ways their advertising departments brandish products in front of my nose, the thought of eating a double McWhopper with curly fries and Baja Blast makes me give up fast food altogether.

But small local restaurants like this one are oases in a hellish landscape of branded highways. The food, like the footprint of the building, is simple and often memorable. That’s what I mean with the “sweetener” metaphor above. If I have a choice between eating under the franchise banner or in a small place that has been feeding its community for years, I usually side with the little guy. The McDonald’s of the world has its own place and its own loyal customer base. But Chip’s, with its charcoal-grilled burgers and goofy little mascot in a blue diamond-shaped hat, too.


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