I could profess to have some credibility in this area. My brother, Ernest, and I built, owned, and operated 38 Hardee’s Restaurants. Many might say the best thing about Hardee’s was their breakfast. Most specifically, their “Made from Scratch” biscuits. I will not argue with that.
However, Hardee’s was founded in 1961 and its claim to fame at that point was their “Char-broiled burgers”. Along the way the “Big Huskie” and the “Big Deluxe” became the standard bearers of the chain. The “Big Twin” became a big hit as well.
Over our 35 years as Hardee’s operators, we saw a lot of different variations of the next, great burger. Many were designed to be LTOs, or “Limited Time Offers”. Other chains followed suit, or maybe led the way. By the late 1990s there was a steady stream of different burger choices, with a variety of sauces, cheeses and other options to differentiate them from the other burgers on the market.
As I would travel, I would sample, taste, and test the latest and greatest burgers on the market. While serving on Hardee’s parent company’s board for many years, I had the opportunity to travel to southern California regularly. On every trip, I would stop at In-and-Out Burgers seeking the secret to their success.
I never found the answer. They have great locations (think Chick-fil-A). They are privately owned (think Chick-fil-A again), paid well and had some of the best employees around. It was always a great experience, but not necessarily because of the food. People like consistency and both In-and-Out and Chick-fil-A offer that day in and day out.
But what about the search for the best burger in the world? It is hard for any fast-food chain like Hardee’s or any of the larger chains like McDonalds, Burger King or Wendy’s to claim that title. That has led to my own private quest, my search for the world’s best burger.
A Google search for the best burger in America will result in numerous restaurants and locations. Most of you will have never heard of them. The best hamburger chain and the best hamburger are two completely different searches. There are regional preferences and local favorites.
As a young kid growing up in Cottonwood, Alabama, I worked at our family’s peanut mill. Farmers from around the surrounding area would bring their freshly harvested crop to the mill to be transferred to our company’s drying wagons. The moisture in freshly harvested peanuts is too high to store them in warehouses. They must be dried to a moisture content level of ten percent or less first.
The transfer station was one of my first jobs at the peanut mill. Remember this is a time that child labor laws did not apply if you were working for your parents. Never mind, it was a great experience. I was young, lean, energetic, and loved getting paid for work that I would otherwise have to do for free.
Many nights, my brother and I would be working at the transfer station. Peanuts would be sucked up from the farmer’s trailer and transferred over a “shaker” which eliminated excess dirt. The peanuts then fell into one of the company’s wagons to be hooked up to one of the drying connections. It seems simple now, but it was a big deal back then.
It was dirty, dusty, and intense work. The line did not end for weeks. Sometimes the transfers occurred 24 hours a day. It was “peanut season” and you worked around the clock. You ate when you could as there were not any breaks for dinner.
That is when I discovered the best hamburger in the world. My mother would call shortly after dark and ask us what we wanted for supper. We were in a swirl of dust on top of peanut wagons. More often than not, we said bring us two cheeseburgers from Pauline’s.
Pauline Holland owned the City Café in Cottonwood. I could write multiple columns about this gathering spot in our small town. She had daily specials for lunch, but if you were not there by 11:30 in the morning, you would not get any short thighs. She had a great collection of salt and pepper shakers on the wall, some of which were brought back by my parents and grandparents from their travels.
Pauline would wrap up the cheeseburgers tightly in plastic wrap and put them in a paper sack. It might be a half hour before Ernest and I got to eat our supper, but the burgers were always warm. They were steamed in the plastic. I can taste them to this day.
At some point, I walked back into the kitchen while Pauline was making me a cheeseburger. The hamburger patties were finishing out on the flat grill. She put a piece of cheese on the burger and then took the spatula and scooped up the surrounding grease from the hamburger and put it on the cheese to melt. It was then that I learned the secret to a great burger.
Some 55 years later, I have sold tens of millions of hamburgers and tasted many others around the world. If someone asks me the question after all these years, I will answer without hesitation. The best hamburger I have ever tasted was from a little café in Cottonwood, Alabama. Pauline’s City Café.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org