As a resident of Wisconsin, I’m firmly in the heart of Culver’s country. Among other things, this means I’m never too far from the buttery embrace of a good hamburger. But even with one of the best of the regional franchises within easy reach, I often feel the need to step outside the chains.
That’s where Chip’s, my local burger dive, comes into play. With barely a handful of locations, these drive-thru classics are as well-worn as they are loved. And if you think about it, I’ll bet there’s a similar purveyor near you. Here’s a brief meditation on why they might deserve another look.
If you’ve spent more than ten minutes reading about wine, you’ve likely come across the word “terroir.” Basically, it’s a French term that sums up the idea that a location’s soil, weather, and environmental factors impart a unique flavor to a particular crop. And it doesn’t just apply to wine. It’s also employed by growers and consumers of coffee, tobacco, tomatoes, and others.
And, I’d argue, hamburgers. Just take a look at the regional styles like the green chile cheeseburger or the beautifully named Mississippi Slugburger. I’d argue that their best examples aren’t found in pristine dining rooms. No, you want a place where the smell of the grill has had time to work its way into the drop ceiling and bench seats. And even if there’s no special recipe or secret ingredient at your local burger place, so what? In the end, good food is the best gimmick of all.
Perhaps no place I’ve visited flies closer to this charbroiled sun than Chip’s Hamburgers in Wisconsin Rapids. You take one look at the curious angles of its exterior, and the years spread out behind you like patties on a grill. The menu is large, dense, and almost free of pictures. The squelch of the drive-thru speaker is just loud enough to be heard from the corner booth with the slight tilt in its tabletop. There’s a condiment station next to the soda dispenser, with “Chip’s Sauce” scrawled in permanent marker on the third pump beside the ketchup and mustard. This, from top to bottom, is a different dining experience.
Maybe that’s a bit romantic. I’ll admit, on my past few visits, the restaurant has served less as “magic nostalgia castle” and more as a “collection of walls in which to commit crimes against my ventricles.” The food is basic, affordable, and good: crinkle-cut fries, burgers, and a wealth of side and dessert options. The patties, I’m guessing, are probably frozen. But, as the menu board proclaims, “ALL BURGERS ARE 100% PURE BEEF AND ARE CHARBROILED (NOT FAT FRIED).” Those are Chip’s capitals, not mine, but the point is well and tastily taken.
And that slogan, hand-painted near the exit of the drive-thru: “Have a Chip-errific Day”? How am I not to be charmed by this?
I could rant about this for pages (and maybe shall, someday), but one of the most annoying things about huge franchises is their emphasis on the almighty “brand.” Just about every chain has its own culture and language, with all the weight of marketing that implies. And sometimes, with the endless ways their ad departments find to wave products in my face, the thought of stomaching a double McWhopper with curly fries and a Baja Blast makes me want to swear off fast food altogether.
But small, local restaurants like this are oases in the branded drive-thru hellscape. The food, like the building’s footprint, is simple and often memorable. That’s what I’m getting at with the “sweetener” metaphor above. If given the choice between eating under a franchise banner or at a small place that’s been feeding its community for years, I’ll usually side with the little guy. The McDonald’s of the world have their place, and their loyal customer base. But Chip’s, with its charbroiled burgers and goofy little mascot in the blue diamond hat, does too.