|HAMBURGERS WERE WORK, FUN, AND PROFIT LONG BEFORE McDONALD'S|
|Peter Gokey and helper cooking with kerosene in what was probably the first of Pete's many hamburger "stands". The photographer is looking south from the corner of Blackhawk Avenue and Beaumont Road. The building behind Pete is Foley's Saloon...1909.|
In the summer of 1908 or 1909, my father started a business. By today’s standards, it would be considered an extreme in small business. He made a little booth out of a table and mounted a kerosene cookstove on it. On this stove he pan-fried hamburgers in onions and sold them to the crowds of hungry people at fairs, canrnivals, auction sales…and on street corners for holidays. Not pretentious, not elegant, but modestly successful! His product was good and he made a profit!
As any reasonable person would, my father adapted his product to the demands of his customers. When business was slow, and hamburgers were kept warm in the fry pans for a time, they tended to dry out. To prevent drying, he poured a little water into each pan. The hamburgers and onions simmered this way until they were sold. His customers were quick to let him know that they preferred the simmered hamburgers over freshly fried hamburgers. By doing a little experimenting, he developed a technique of simmering the hamburgers and onions in water right from the start. He knew he was on the right track when his customers started coming back for seconds and even thirds.
A side benefit tot he simmering of the hamburgers was the characteristic flavor, texture, and aroma that have contributed to their popularity to this day. In addition, because the hamburgers never dried out, he could cook and keep a large number of them hot and ready to be sold at all times without impairing quality. He had developed a fast-food business of the finest kind! Perhaps the first in the country!
Business grew better and better, and my father found he was cramped for cooking space in the cast iron fry pans. Being innovative as he was, he applied his creative talents to his equipment as well as to his product. He took a rectangular piece of black sheet-iron, bent up the edges, and welded the corners shut to form a large pan. This gave him a large grill from which liquids could not run off. He mounted this grill over several kerosene burners. Now he had ample cooking space in one big pan. He added a beach umbrella for protection from the sun or rain. And later, he added a glass shield around three sides of the grill area to protect customers from spatters. Little did he know that he was predating OSHA.
As his experience grew, he made other improvements. He replaced his booth with a box that unfolded into a working table, and the unfolding exposed the cooking pan which had been protected by the table extensions for transporting. This made his business much more portable and convenient for moving from event to event. By this time he had found demand for his hamburgers to be more than just for holidays or special occasions. He began to operate his “CLEAN LUNCH” every Saturday and Sunday in good weather. Demand was more than one cook could satisfy, so Pete made a total three portable stands when my older brothers were old enough to cook the burgers. Also about this time, the hamburger business became known to members of the family as “The Stand”, a shortened version of “the Hamburger Stand”.
Sometime in the mid-1940’s, my father replaced the boxes with a trailer he designed and built in his sign shop at 210 North Prairie Street. He replaced the kerosene burners with cleaner and larger LP gas burners. Refrigerators were added to keep his onions and hamburger cold right at the “Stand”.
Eventually he settled his business in a permanent location* on the main intersection of Prairie du Chien (Blackhawk Avenue & Beaumont Road). There his delicious hamburgers became “Pete’s Hamburgers”, and that’s what the sign proclaims to this day!
My father operated his snappy little business for sixty-three consecutive years…until his death in 1972. He had literally peeled tons of onions, cooked them with tons of hamburger, and tantalized the palate of thousands upon thousands of customers during his lifetime.
As always, in dealing with the public, there were many incidents, some humorous, some serious. Just being near the Foley brothers presented a constant threat of practical jokes. Here’s one of them! When customers saw Pete or my brothers pour liquid from a pitcher onto the onions and hamburgers, some were naturally curious and asked what the liquid was. They were told it was water…which it was! But at some time along the way, between my brothers and Dad, and a few close friends, Foley’s included, it became known as “hamburger oil” as an inside joke. When a tavern customer, a stranger in town, asked Bill Foley what those hamburgers were cooked in that made them so delicious, Bill knew he had a patsy for a good joke. He told the man, who was from Chicago, that they were cooked in hamburger oil. He persuaded the man to try some, which he would buy from my father. As a final outcome of this event, a quart of water was sold to this gullible Chicago man as “hamburger oil”!
After my father’s death, my older brother, Robert Gokey, operated Pete’s Hamburgers for just three years when he died of cancer. Bob’s widow, Phyllis, and their eight children now operate Pete’s Hamburgers, and the business is thriving. On any summer weekend, the spicy aroma of Pete’s Hamburgers will lead you to the little trailer on Blackhawk Avenue where you can enjoy a mouth-watering hamburger that has been simmered with onions, just the way Pete used to make them. For a short time there was also a second “Stand” in La Crosse, Wisconsin, operated by Jim Gokey, one of the sons of Bob and Phyllis.
Naturally, everyone in my family learned the hamburger business…from peeling onions to selecting the right beef for the hamburger. And over the years many of us have given thought to starting a business like Pete’s Hamburgers. I have! But state and federal regulations effectively prevent a low-budget start up. Pete’s is a business that gives good value! Just ask the many repeat customers! Pete’s provides a high quality, nourishing, fair valued taste treat, but regulations are designed to discourage such businesses on the grounds that they are too difficult to monitor for cleanliness and food quality! Thank God for the grandfather clauses!
In any case, I sincerely hope Pete’s is around for another 90 years for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy! A trip to Prairie du Chien is sorely lacking without a Pete’s Hamburger!
* For many years the “Stand” was operated on the southeast corner of the intersection of Blackhawk Avenue and Beaumont Road, on Foley’s Tavern property, and which later became Geisler’s Restaurant. Later (in the 1950’s) it was moved not quite one block west of this location on Blackhawk Avenue, and situated on property belonging to Stark’s Sport Shop. At this writing it is still there and business is better than ever!