Others also lay claim to the invention, including the descendants of Louis Lassen, a Connecticut luncheonette owner. To his dying day, Lassen insisted that he sold the first hamburger in 1890 to a customer who wanted a sandwich in a hurry.
That lunch-in-a-hurry idea elevated the burger from a lowly diner staple to the top-selling item in what's now a $140 billion fast-food industry. But the burger also gets kicked around for at least contributing to this country's burgeoning obesity problems. The total fat content of a McDonald's quarter-pounder with cheese, for example, is a hefty 26 grams. Not exactly diet fare, but this juicy burger is cheap and filling. It tastes good, and, even better, you can eat one while driving a car or talking on a cell phone.
Meanwhile, American tastes have evolved, and some conscientious eaters are hungry for a different kind of burger, one that's just a little healthier. And I'm not talking someplace that serves vegetarian knockoff burgers.
The 17-month-old Local Burger isn't a health-food restaurant. In fact, the organic sandwich shop in Lawrence is probably a lot closer in spirit to Charlie Nagreen's burger booth at the Outagamie County Fair. Back then, Nagreen's beef likely came from cattle raised in the same county; similarly, Local Burger's menu promises that it serves "local meat raised using sustainable and humane practices." The beef here comes from grass-fed cows, without any added antibiotics or hormones; same goes for the buffalo and elk patties and the natural turkey burger. Even better, these burgers don't cost much more than the fast-food variety.
On one trip to the glass-walled building (it once housed an auto dealership), I brought along Franklin and Ned, who had both rolled their eyes at the idea of a healthy hamburger hamlet. Standing in line, they looked witheringly at customers wearing Birkenstocks in the middle of winter. Ned was even more scandalized that the restaurant didn't serve onion rings or tater tots. "They're vegetarian items, for God's sake," he groused.
Ned's sour mood changed after his first bite of Local Burger's soothing chili he went so far as to call it "emotionally satisfying" and a plain beef burger from Amy's Meats in Lawrence. Franklin, a devotee of greasy Town Topic burgers, thought his grass-fed beef burger and organic green salad were terrific. (He was tempted to order all of the side dishes at once except for the combination of brown rice, cayenne and vinegar called "Master Cleanse." After all, he said, "It's a long drive back to Kansas City.") I also enjoyed that day's sandwich special, a luscious lamb burger topped with melted feta cheese.
On another visit with my friends Bob, Audrey and Dan, a crew from the Sundance Channel was filming a segment about Local Burger for its upcoming Big Ideas for a Small Planet series. That was the same night Local Burger's owner, Hilary Brown, told me that she had been looking at some rental spaces in Kansas City's Crossroads neighborhood for a second location. Since then, Brown has had to downscale her plans.