The rise and fall of Kewpee Hamburgers


Autumn Weston is the fourth-generation owner of Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe, which opened in downtown Lansing in 1924. She recognizes this as an important milestone for both her family and the city as a whole.

At one time, the Kewpee restaurant chain had more than 400 locations nationwide, according to Gary Flinn, author of the new book “Kewpee Hamburgers: A Mity Nice History.” The book details the rise and fall of one of the nation’s oldest hamburger chains, second only to White Castle. Today, there are only a handful of Kewpee restaurants still open.

When the author was approached by History Press to write his second book about Flint, he segued into writing about the Halo Burger chain, which was what most Kewpee restaurants became after Bill Thomas purchased the original Kewpee location and rights to the company in 1958. There are still seven Halo locations in the Flint area, and they still use the slogan “Seven days without a Halo Burger makes one weak.”

Flinn’s book is well-researched, and he discovered some of the peccadilloes of the late Flint resident Samuel Blair, known as “Old Man Kewpee.” In 1941, Blair married his fourth wife, a woman 50 years younger than him, proving that it’s not just “a pickle on top (that) makes the heart go flippity-flop.” The marriage only lasted a few weeks, and Blair’s previous wife accompanied the blissful newlyweds on their honeymoon. You can imagine the riot the news media had writing about this union.

Flinn will visit Kewpee 2 p.m. Friday (Aug. 4) to discuss and sign his new book. Food service will be available, and books will be available for purchase.

The Kewpee chain was originally called Kewpee Hotel, although it was never associated with lodging. The Kewpee name was derived from its mascot, the Kewpie doll, which was designed by cartoonist Rose O’Neill in 1909 and soon became an international phenomenon, driven by a popular comic she created for several women’s magazines. Today, a creative depiction of a Kewpie doll graces the entrance to Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe.

When Lansing’s original Kewpee Hotel opened, it was on Shiawassee Street, where Lansing Community College now stands. It was one of the first restaurants in Lansing to have drive-in service, and it became a popular hang-out spot for teens from nearby Lansing Central High School.

Early on, Gladys Bowlin, Autumn Weston’s great-grandmother, developed a secret recipe for a special olive sauce that would top the burgers. The olive burger is still the restaurant’s most popular dish, and the secret sauce recipe is only known to Autumn Weston; her father, Gary Weston; and Tammie Bunker, who has worked at the restaurant since the early 1980s.

The Weston scion took ownership of the downtown Lansing Kewpee location when Bowlin retired and turned the operation over to her son from her first marriage, Russell Weston. In 1973, the restaurant was torn down as a result of urban renewal and was forced to move. A sandwich-board-style menu from the original location can still be seen at the current location on Washington Avenue.

In the interim, Kewpee opened what was to be a temporary location on South Pennsylvania Avenue before finally relocating to downtown Lansing in 1979.

Flinn writes that the main downfall for Kewpee was the Great Depression, which left the chain with only 60 locations. A 1967 effort to begin a franchise agreement ended with only six remaining restaurants.

Autumn Weston remembers working with her brother when she was about 10, standing on a milk crate to reach the counter. She respects that she’s part of a family tradition and how that tradition has instilled a work ethic in her. Her mantra is, “If you find a purpose, you find passion.”

She said the customers and staff are like family.

“It lights up your eyes when you hear stories of a husband and wife’s first date at Kewpee, or how they were engaged here. I love to hear those stories,” she said.

She often goes the extra mile for customers and recalls making a delivery run to the home of an elderly customer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I told her the burger comes with love and a hug,” Weston said.

In terms of what the future holds, Weston said, “We are always adjusting to the market, and we are getting ready to launch a Kewpee cart for events and parties.”

“Kewpee Hamburgers: A Mity Nice History” discussion and book signing

Friday, Aug. 4

2-4 p.m.

Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe

118 Washington Square, Lansing



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