John Menches had always been told his great-grandfather invented the hamburger in 1885. But for decades, this was little more than legend and lore at family reunions. Then in 1991, Menches and his siblings stumbled across the original recipe among some old papers their great-grandmother left behind. So, they took out some ground beef, added brown sugar, coffee, and some other ingredients, and discovered one great hamburger.
After hawking their burgers at county fairs for a few years, they decided to open up a restaurant. A decade later, they're now mass-producing these burgers for the frozen-food aisles of more than 80 grocery stores in Northeast Ohio. BusinessWeek SmallBiz contributor Rachael King spoke with Menches, CEO of Menches Brothers Original Hamburger, at January's QVC product search in Arlington, Va. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: How did your great-grandfather invent the hamburger?
A: Our great-grandfather Charles and his brother Frank were traveling concessionaires back in 1885. They did the Hamburg fair, which is located about eight miles south of Buffalo. They were a 100-man operation. They were really noted for their sausage sandwich. The fair was run in August. It was too hot, and they ran out of sausage. It was too hot to butcher because there was no refrigeration, and the meat wouldn't have turned out very well.
They were talked into using ground beef, which back then was a little taboo. Fairs were where the highest of society met, and ground beef was more for lower-class people, so they didn't think they'd be successful with it. Faced with nothing to sell at all, they fried it up, but it was too bland.
My grandfather decided to put coffee, brown sugar, and some other household ingredients in it and cooked up the sandwich. My great-uncle Frank served the first sandwich, a gentleman tasted it and said, "What do you call it?" Uncle Frank didn't really know what to call it, so he looked up and saw the banner for the Hamburg fair and said, "This is the hamburger."
Q: Does everyone agree that Charles and Frank Menches invented the hamburger?
A: There are three major claims to the invention of the hamburger, and we're one of them.
Q: You've said your great-grandfather's company went dormant during the Great Depression. How did you rediscover the recipe?
A: In the late 1980s we had an elder family member who was the son-in-law of my great-uncle Frank, and he used to come to our family reunions. We always knew we were the third-generation descendants. In 1991, Mr. Cecil Bush [the relative] didn't show up anymore because he had passed on.
My brothers and sisters said to ourselves, "I think we've lost our history." We thought we had to do something about this. I've got nine brothers and sisters, and we started getting any information we could on our ancestors. In information we discovered, passed down from my great-grandmother, we found what we know now is the original recipe for the hamburger.
Q: What did you do after the discovery?
A: We took that recipe and got into the Stark County Fair in Canton, Ohio, in 1991. We didn't know what we were doing. We just served Pepsi Cola and a hamburger and told our story. It was a seven-day fair, and by the end of the seventh day, we were the hottest thing on the fairground.
We were on the front page of two newspapers in the Akron-Canton area and on NBC out of Cleveland. We did fairs and festivals for about two or three years. We opened up a test-market restaurant in 1994, here in Green, Ohio. That prospered, and we have a fantastic business here.
Q: So, the Menches Gourmet Burgers you sell to grocery stores are the original recipe?
A: Yes, and it does contain coffee and brown sugar.
Q: Why do you want to be on QVC?
A: We're going to make sure that Charles and Frank Menches get their prominent place in history. That was our mission statement, and it still is.