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The Kewpee's History
As written by David Kristopeit

Old Lansing, MI Kewpee
The Racine Kewpee was founded in the 1920's by Dick Sanford. He came to Racine with a young man named Allen (Speck) Durkee. Mr. Sanford sold the Kewpee a few years later to Walter Block who owned it until he died in 1957 when Mr. Durkee bought it from his estate.(See note below) Mr. Durkee died in 1963. His wife Emilee asked her brother Richard Kristopeit to manage it for her. He had worked at the Kewpee part-time since high school. Mr. Kristopeit bought the Kewpee from his sister in 1968 and sold it to his sons, David and Rick, in 1976. David had started at the Kewpee in 1964 when he was 14 and Rick the next year when he was 14. David bought out Rick's share in 1992. From 1992 until 2003, Dave ran the Kewpee along with his wife Trudy and their three children, Mike, Katie, and Joshua. Dave and Trudy sold out in 2003 to long time manager, Richard Buehrens, who happens to be Trudy's brother. Joshua still works at the Kewpee as Richard's manager.

The original structure was moved to the back of the property line in 1939 when the second structure was built. After the new building was completed the old structure was demolished. This way the Kewpee never had to close during its' first reconstruction. This would never be allowed today with the strict building and health codes now in force.

A city parking structure was built over the Kewpee in 1962. The Kewpee never had to close during construction of the parking ramp. In 1995 it was determined that the ramp was no longer safe and had to be demolished. This time the Kewpee wasn't so lucky. Engineers determined that the ramp could not be demolished while leaving the Kewpee intact.

Kewpee in Utica, N.Y. circa 1947
The city of Racine acquired the Kewpee under the right of eminent domain and agreed to help in relocation as required under Wisconsin law. Because no adequate replacement property was available in downtown to rebuild on or to relocate to, David Kristopeit decided to buy the old property back from the city after the demolition and rebuild on the same site it had been on for over 70 years.

The last day of operation in the old Kewpee was May 31, 1997. It was torn down during the month of June and July. Construction began on the new Kewpee August 26, 1997. The new Kewpee opened on 11/22/97.

The busiest day in Kewpee history happened during the downtime reconstruction. We served 4500 hamburgers at the Johnson Wax employee picnic on August 2, 1997. It took 5 Kewpee chefs 4 1/2 hours to cook the 720 pounds of ground beef. We started cooking at 9am, started serving at 10:30am and ran out about 1:10 pm on that 80 degree sunny Saturday. The previous busiest day was during WWII when we served 5000 burgers in 1942. Even though we served more burgers that day it took 24 hours to do so and the prices were much lower.

The new Kewpee retains the classic art deco look of the one built in 1939. It has slightly more seating at 48 instead of 36. It is on one floor and has parking for 15 cars. It is completely handicapped accessible. One thing that did not change was the burgers; fresh meat daily, hand pattied and pressed and cooked fresh to order.

Unknown Kewpee
All together the Kewpee has been in operation for over 70 years. It is part of a small franchise. It is one of the oldest franchises in the country and had over 200 restaurants east of the Mississippi before WWII. That's 25-30 years before the first McDonald's opened it's doors. Most of those Kewpee's closed during the war when ground meat was so hard to get. There are only six Kewpee's left now. The headquarters is located in Lima, Ohio which is the site of three Kewpee's. The other two Kewpee's are in Lansing, Michigan.(See Photos)

A few of the communities that had Kewpee's include Toledo, Ohio, Akron, Ohio, Sandusky, Ohio, Flint, Michigan (Read about the Flint Kewpee here), Grand Rapids, Michigan, LaCrosse, WI, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Utica, New York, South Bend, Indiana, Muncie, Indiana, Benton, Illinois and Kalamazoo, MI. Dave Thomas got the idea for Wendy's hamburgers from the Kalamazoo Kewpee. Read about it here. If your community had a Kewpee in the old days, please email me at dave@kewpee.com and I will list it here."

Note: In Billy Graham's autobiography, 'Just As I Am', he gives credit to a wealthy businessman from Kenosha, WI by the name of Walter Block. Apparently in 1945 Mr. Block gave Mr. Graham a travel card to use whenever he was traveling for Youth For Christ. I am trying to determine if this is the same Mr. Block that owned the Kewpee. Any help is appreciated.

Further Note:Thanks to Andy Andersen from Andy's Restaurant in Kenosha. He remembers a Walter Block of Kenosha as a wealthy businessman who owned a factory in Kenosha during the 40's. Apparently both Racine and Kenosha had separate Walter Block's.

Old South Bend, Indiana Kewpee


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©1995-2014 Michael Kristopeit