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Mattoon Burger King One-of-a-Kind

August 18, 1998

MATTOON, Ill. (AP) _ Cruise along the commercial strip in town and you’ll pass the usual fast-food fare _ McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell.

You won’t reach a Burger King until you get downtown. And when you step inside you’ll find a menu with Hooter burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and 14 flavors of milkshakes _ but not a Whopper in sight.

This is Mattoon’s Burger King, a local legend with no relation to the OTHER Burger King. This restaurant was founded in 1952 _ 10 years before the national chain came to Illinois _ and the owners have a court ruling forbidding the Home of the Whopper from coming within 20 miles.

This Burger King began in 1952, when a young Gene Hoots bought his uncle’s business, a tiny shack called the Frigid Queen that sold soft ice cream in the summer.

In 1954, Hoots _ now married to a ``good-looking blond girl″ named Betty he met when she came in to buy ice cream _ decided to expand the business, keep it open year-round and add burgers to the menu.

But what to call it?

``We thought, Frigid Queen, that almost says ice cream. Burger King, that says burgers. That’s how we decided on the name,″ Hoots says with a simple shrug.

On the advice of his uncle, Hoots hired a lawyer who paid the $25 fee to register Burger King as a trademark with the Illinois Secretary of State.

From there on, business boomed.

Then in 1961, Hoots read that a restaurant chain called Burger King, founded in Florida in 1954, planned to open a location in Skokie, a Chicago suburb about 180 miles north of Mattoon.

``We said, `Hey they can’t do that.′ And we went to our attorney and he said, `No, they can’t do that,″ Hoots said.

The Hoots sued. The chain sued back.

A federal judge ruled in 1967 in favor of the chain, and a federal appeals court upheld the ruling the next year, saying the federal trademark filed by the national chain took priority over the Hoots’ state trademark.

However, the courts softened the blow by ruling that the national Burger King chain couldn’t open a franchise within 20 miles of Mattoon.

The ruling stands today, and Gene and Betty Hoots are still working at their Burger King.

Betty _ still a vivacious blond at 65 _ talks in the slang of a longtime waitress, asking a customer ordering coffee if he wants ``the real thing or unleaded.″ Gene, 70, still gets excited when he talks about the restaurant business.

They don’t think the Burger King name has helped or hindered them over the years.

Sales, which were $36,000 in 1953, now total more than $1 million a year. The most popular special used to be six hamburgers for a dollar, now it’s six burgers for $4.99.

But other things haven’t changed.

Teen-agers on dates can still slide into cozy booths with bright red, yellow and green backs.

A jukebox and pinball machines occupy one corner. And papered around on the wood-paneled walls are fliers reading ``Try a blueberry shake or sundae!″ and ``Today’s flavor lemon.″

Their juicy hamburgers are so prized that one Mattoon man buys a dozen Hooters _ otherwise known as quarter-pound cheeseburgers _ and freezes them to take to his brother in Hawaii.

``It’s not unusual for parents who still live here who have children who have gone on to other states to say, `You get to see our kids when they come home for a visit. Yours is the first place they stop and the last place they stop when they leave town,‴ Mrs. Hoots said.

The Hoots’ Burger King is filled with the quirks a family-owned restaurant acquires over time.

Ice cream cones are decorated with two round, pastel-colored candy pieces that look like eyes staring at customers as they lick away. Little League players who visit with their coach after a game can buy milkshakes for a quarter.

And then there’s Bill Douglas, the manager whose promise that he would stay for six months has turned into 35 years _ so far.

Customers know to pick up their orders at the counter when he calls out the numbers in a distinctive voice easily heard above the regular conversational patter: ``Fooooorty-niiiiiiiine.″

``It’s like home. It’s comfortable,″ says Tom Gover, eating lunch with his wife, adult daughters and grandchildren. ``And it’s unique.″

The agreement that allowed the Hoots to keep their Burger King while the chain thrived everywhere else does not exist elsewhere in the United States, says Charles Nicolas, a spokesman for the chain.

``We’re happy with the way our kingdoms have peacefully coexisted all these years,″ Nicolas says.

But the Hoots say they still get calls from people wondering whether they would mind a Burger King in a nearby small town.

``And we say, ‘yes we really would.’ That is our area and they can’t do that,″ Gene Hoots says. ``It’s ours. The whole state is supposed to be ours. And we don’t like the idea that we were kind of pushed around because we were the little guy.″

``We are not a Burger King. We are THE Burger King,″ he says with a laugh.

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