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

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

Photo: Josh Wussow

Like a resident of Wisconsin, I am firmly at the heart of culver country. Among other things, that means I’m never too far from the buttery embrace of a good burger. But even with one of the best regional franchises at hand, I often feel the urge to get out of the chains.

That’s where Chip’s, my local burger joint, comes in. With barely a handful of locations, these drive-thru classics are as worn as they are loved. And if you think about it, I bet there is a similar provider near you. Here’s a brief meditation on why they might be worth another look.

vintage sign hamburger chips, with an ice cream cone shaped sign next to it

Photo: Josh Wussow

The food is seasoned with the locality

If you’ve spent more than ten minutes reading on wineyou’ve probably come across the word “land.” Basically, it’s a French term that encapsulates the idea that the soil, weather, and environmental factors of a place lend a unique flavor to a particular culture. And that doesn’t just apply to wine. It is also used by producers and consumers of coffee, tobacco, tomatoes and others.

And, I would say, burgers. Take a look at regional styles like the green chili cheeseburger or the nicely named Mississippi Slugburger. I would say their best examples are not in immaculate dining rooms. No, you want a place where the smell of the grill has had time to penetrate the drop ceiling and the banquettes. And even if there’s no special recipe or secret ingredient at your local burger joint, so what? In the end, good food is the best gadget of all.

Hand holding a double cheeseburger with a bite taken out

Photo: Josh Wussow

Smaller locations provide a more memorable dining experience

Perhaps no place I’ve visited flies closer to this toasty sun than Chip’s Burgers in the Wisconsin Rapids. You peek at the curious angles of its exterior, and the years stretch out behind you like patties on a grill. The menu is large, dense and almost without images. The steering wheel speaker muffler is just loud enough to be heard from the corner cabin with the slight tilt of its table. There’s a condiment station next to the soda dispenser, with “Chip’s Sauce” scrawled in permanent marker on the third pump next to ketchup and mustard. This, from top to bottom, is a different dining experience.

Hamburger sign on Chip's lawn reading

Photo: Josh Wussow

Maybe it’s a bit romantic. I admit that during my last visits, the restaurant served less as a “magical castle of nostalgia” than as a “collection of walls in which to commit crimes against my ventricles”. The food is basic, affordable and good: fries, burgers and a multitude of side and dessert options. The patties, I guess, are probably frozen. But, as the menu board proclaims, “ALL BURGERERS ARE 100% PURE BEEF AND ARE LOADED (NOT FAT FRIED)”. These are Chip’s capitals, not mine, but the point is well and tasty taken.

And this slogan, painted by hand near the exit of the drive: “Have a Chip-errific Day”? how am I do not be charmed?

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

Photo: Josh Wussow

Local businesses are skipping ‘artificial sweeteners’ from big chains

I could talk about this for pages (and maybe I will one day), but one of the most annoying things about big franchises is the focus on the almighty “brand”. Almost every channel has its own culture and language, with all the marketing weight that entails. And sometimes, with the myriad ways their ad departments find products in my face, the thought of eating a double McWhopper with curly fries and a Baja Blast makes me want to give up fast food altogether.

But small local restaurants like this are oases in the hellish drive-thru landscape. The food, like the building’s footprint, is simple and often memorable. That’s what I mean with the “sweetener” metaphor above. If given the choice between eating under a franchise banner or at a small place that has nurtured its community for years, I usually go for the little guy’s side. The McDonald’s of the world have their place and their loyal customers. But Chip’s, with its charcoal-grilled burgers and goofy little mascot in the blue diamond hat, does too.

About Glenda Wait

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