LIMA — The home of the “mity nice” hamburger hasn’t changed much over the years. That may be the secret to Kewpee’s success: focus on one thing, and do it well.
The iconic Lima restaurant, which opened its first store here in 1928, has eschewed fads in favor of careful, incremental change.
“We try to do things the same today, basically, as we did decades ago, because it was the best way to do it then, and we believe it’s the best way to do it now,” said Scott Shutt, vice president and general manager of Kewpee.
Hamburger patties are still ground fresh each morning, giving the Kewpee burger its distinct flavor.
While the process has evolved with new technology making it easier to grind hamburger — in the restaurant’s early days, Shutt said employees relied on an ice cream scoop and their hands — the process is still labor intensive.
The restaurant’s menu has stayed consistent for decades, focused on its core products — hamburgers, chili and frosted malts — for a modest price.
But sometimes Kewpee makes an exception, like when the restaurants started selling French fries for the first time in the mid-1970s.
Shutt’s father, Harrison, took his time searching for the perfect fry to sell at his stores. He finally settled on J.R. Simplot in Boise, Idaho, which continues to supply Kewpee its fries to this day.
“We wanted a French fry that was as good as our hamburger. … A lot of them will tell you it is the best French fry there is,” Shutt said. “We’ve been using the same fry forever.”
More recently, Kewpee added a fish sandwich to its menu, which came about 15 years ago.
But too much change could threaten what made Kewpee so popular to begin with.
The Shutt family has focused on its three Lima stores, rather than turn the Kewpee brand into a regional or national franchise. While Shutt said he hasn’t ruled out future expansions, he isn’t willing to compromise the brand’s quality in pursuit of growth.
The Lima restaurants still rely on local suppliers such as Nickles Bakery and Keystone Meats for a good portion of Kewpee’s buns and meat. Even Kewpee condiments are sourced in Ohio.
“It would be difficult to go very far and maintain that quality,” Shutt said. “The reason a lot of places buy things from large suppliers – sometimes custom-made for them – they have to make a compromise in order to grow. We’re not willing to make that compromise.
“It’s more important for us to be the best we can be than the biggest we can be.”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.