Growing up saying that his family invented the hamburger, John Menches of Akron had a hard time getting people to take him seriously. Adding that his family also created the ice cream cone and what would become known as Cracker Jack didn’t help.
Time and again Menches heard the same response — “How come I’ve never heard of you before?”
So in 1991, Menches dedicated himself to telling his family’s story. Today he is CEO of Menches Bros. Original Hamburger and, along with his family, operates two Menches Bros. restaurants in Summit County. The company also distributes frozen hamburgers to grocery stores in northeast Ohio. His goal?
“Menches Bros. will be a household name,” he said.
The burger, according to John
The story Menches tells of his family’s first hamburger is not undisputed.
Menches traces the birth of the burger to his great-grandfather Charles and great uncle Frank. The brothers traveled from festival to festival by wagon and rail with their 100-man concessionaire operation during the late 19th century.
“There was nothing bigger than a festival,” Menches said.
He said unlike modern carnivals, festivals of that time were for the affluent, and sausage was the king of foods. The Menches brothers specialized in sausage sandwiches, so when they ran out of pork in August 1885 at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, they had to come up with something else.
Recalling a 1920s interview with Frank Menches, in the book “Tanbark and Tinsel,” author John Kunzog described what happened next:
Andrew Klein, who operated a slaughterhouse and meat market, was unable to furnish pork. The weather had been usually hot and humid and precluded butchering.
“Let me,” said Mr. Klein, “chop up for you ten pounds of beef. It’s a tasty meat and I feel sure it will please your customers.”
Frank Menches mentally debated: Ten pounds is a lot of meat if it don’t sell, and said: “Better make it five pounds.”
Frank brought the beef to Charles who formed it into patties and fried it on their gasoline stove, and the brothers sampled their creation.
“It was pretty bland,” Menches said, a problem Charles and Frank solved by adding coffee and brown sugar. But the sandwich still needed a name.
“My Uncle Frank didn’t know what to call it,” Menches said. “And he looked up and saw the sign for the Hamburg Fair.”
Kunzog recorded that a customer who had just purchased the sandwich approached Frank:
“Gutte schmeck! Vas ist? (Good Tasting! What is it?)” the customer asked.
“Hamburger,” Frank replied, adding, “das allerbeste (The very best)!”
Today Menches uses beef from TNG Country Custom Meats in Medina County. Mike Fullard, TNG owner, said the company processes up to 50,000 pounds of hamburger a week for distribution primarily in northeast Ohio. That’s in addition to as much as 20,000 pounds in cuts of beef, he said.
A burger bash
Charles and Frank may begin gaining recognition at the debut of the National Hamburger Festival, scheduled for Aug. 17 and 18 at the Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron.
“It’s going to be a real family event,” said Drew Cerza who is organizing the festival. Cerza also created the chicken wing festival in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., which attracts up to 130,000 people each year. Hamburg is a suburb of Buffalo, so Cerza said coming to Menches’ hometown is a good fit.
The event will feature the Ohio Hamburger Eating Championship, the Burger Queen Pageant, bobbing for burgers and restaurants competing for the title of best hamburger in the nation.
“We want to come out of the gate big,” Cerza said. “I’m going to invite everyone.”
Beyond the burger
But Charles and Frank’s legacy doesn’t stop with the hamburger. According to Menches, the brothers sold caramel coated peanuts and popcorn with a prize in the pack at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, calling their product Gee Whiz.
However, Frito Lay Inc., which boasts it has sold enough Cracker Jack to circle the world 69 times, credits F.W. Rueckheim and Brother with creating the snack at the 1893 event.
Menches said it wasn’t uncommon for many people to lay claim to new concoctions during such festivals. He said that by the end of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, more than 60 people claimed credit for the ice cream cone — including Charles and Frank.
The story goes that Charles was attempting to make waffle cups to hold ice cream but was unable to shape them before the waffle became hard and brittle. A mold to make the cups had been patented by a New York ice cream peddler in 1903, but Charles only had a flat griddle.
Charles had an idea when he saw Frank using a sailor’s fid, a conical tool used to splice thick tent ropes. Charles used the fid to roll up his waffles directly on the griddle, and the ice cream cone was born.
The burger business
The brothers eventually gave up their concessionaire operation and went on to open Akron’s first movie theatre, but after Charles’ death in 1931 and Frank’s in 1951, the family’s business endeavors ended. Forty years later, all Menches was left with were old photos, newspaper clippings and stories at family reunions.
“To you they’re just myths and stories; to me, I lived them,” he said.
Menches said that despite the family’s incredible history, restarting the business has been a slow, arduous process.
“It’s the American story. I’m living it. It’s not coming easy,” he said.
Still, in the tradition of Charles and Frank, he goes on making burgers —coffee and brown sugar included.
The beef over the burger
As one historian put it, “To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and inevitable ambiguity.”
Not everyone agrees that Charles and Frank Menches invented the hamburger. Ask the residents of Seymour, Wis., and they’ll tell you that Charles “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen created the sandwich in 1885 when he flattened a meatball and placed it between two slices of bread.
Not so, say the descendants of Louis Lassen in New Haven, Conn., who operate Louis’ Lunch diner. Their story credits Lassen with inventing the sandwich in 1900 for a hurried customer needing food on the go.
Texan Fletcher Davis is also reported to be behind the burger and is widely recognized as the person responsible for popularizing the sandwich as a vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
So why isn’t there ham in a hamburger? Many say that the sandwich was not named after Hamburg, N.Y., as the Menches claim but rather after ground beef steaks that were brought to the United States by immigrants from Hamburg, Germany.