When you step up to order at Pete’s Hamburger Stand in Prairie du Chien, you’ll notice there’s only four things on the menu: soda, water, chips and, of course, a hamburger.
The recipe is simple — quality ground beef, onions, a little salt.
But then Pete’s does something a little unexpected.
When it’s time to cook the burgers, they dump water right into the pan along with the burgers and onions. And they keep adding water until they’re done, creating a flavorful bath the burgers soak up.
Customers can customize their order (slightly) with onions or without, and add ketchup or spicy horseradish mustard.
For generations, regulars have been lining up for the beloved hamburgers. On the day I stopped by, almost as soon as the sign flipped to open, there was a line.
One regular compared the burger to a White Castle slider, though a meatier version. Another said he hadn’t planned to come that afternoon, but couldn’t resist when he smelled the burgers cooking down the street.
It’s a big year for Pete’s. The family-run stand celebrated a significant milestone this season — 110 years in business.
Located downtown, the stand looks like it’s straight out of the 1920s. It’s tiny — very tiny — with a green and white awning and sliding windows you walk up to to place your order. A burger costs $4.50.
Inside is Mary Huser, the granddaughter of founder Pete Gokey. She’s cooking the burgers exactly the way he did more than a century ago. Huser owns the stand along with her brother, Paul Gokey, and their spouses.
What has kept people coming back all these years?
Mary suspects it’s the way they cook the burgers in water.
“The water keeps the burgers nice and moist and our pan doesn’t have a drain in it, so we don’t clean it until the end of the day. We keep adding water and meat and onions all day,” she said. “It makes for a good recipe.”
Some regulars won’t even touch the burgers until several batches have been made, according to Mary’s husband, Bill Huser, who also cooks at the stand.
Each burger leaves behind a little more flavor as it cooks, he said.
“It gets better, a lot of people won’t eat off the first pan,” Bill said. “They claim it doesn’t taste as good.”
Before it became a permanent stand in the 1920s, Pete Gokey, who was also a volunteer fireman, sold his burgers from a cart at festivals and fairs. He noticed the burgers stayed juicy when he cooked them in water as the customers ebbed and flowed.
The recipe hasn’t changed since.
Today, the stand — which is open Friday through Sunday — goes through a couple hundred pounds of meat each day, and up to 500 pounds of onions over the weekend.
Mary can cook anywhere from 55 to 65 burgers at a time. And while that might sound like a lot, they were gone in a flash the day I visited.
On busy weekends, customers line up as a group — not in a straight line — on both sides of the stand. On really busy days, Mary said the line can stretch down the block all afternoon, Mary said. When I asked her what it was like to cook when that many people descend on the stand, she laughed and took it in stride — though pointed out one significant factor.
“When it’s cool, it can be all right. But on hot days, it can be very exhausting,” she said. “By the end of the shift you’re ready to go home.”
But Mary and Bill say there’s something special about having to wait in line to get your burger.
“Coming to a stand like this where you have to wait is something that most people aren’t used to, and it’s kind of nostalgic,” Bill said. “People stand in line and talk. It’s amazing the connections that they find between people who are strangers, and sometimes they aren’t strangers when they leave.”
The Husers are big on community. Not only in how they source their products with local meat and buns, but they also donate proceeds from their bagged chip sales to people in the community with a disability or fighting cancer.
Mary and Bill say hard work, perseverance and a quality product are what have kept the business going for so long.
As for what the original Pete might think about making it 110 years, Mary and Bill say they think he’d be proud.
So whether you like your burgers with onions or without … ketchup or spicy horseradish mustard — just don’t ask for cheese — the Husers hope you’ll enjoy the burgers and meet some new friends along the way.
“I just hope they come here and get their money’s worth and feel like they’ve gotten a product that’s worth what they paid for,” Bill said. “Hopefully along the way, the environment … makes it fun, even if you have to stand in line.”
(Another story about Pete’s Hamburger Stand also aired on Wisconsin Public Television’s Wisconsin Life on October 20, 2016.)
SONG: “Hamburger Midnight” by Little Feat