Yummy Origin Stories: The Cheeseburger
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
We love food! We especially love creative food treats that were invented to make us happy, if not necessarily healthy. You just know the origin stories of those delightful products have to be interesting and probably surprising, too!
As with all great simultaneous discoveries, like the steam engine and the telephone, the invention of the cheeseburger is fraught with competing origin stories. Read on!
The German hamburger – aka “hamburger beefsteak” and “hamburger sandwich” is a popular item at lunch counters in the U.S., having been a menu choice since the 1880s.
The upgrade from plain hamburger to “cheeseburger” is a gimmick of Lionel Sternberger (yes, Sternberger!) at his sandwich shop, the Rite Spot, in Pasadena, California, in 1927 – without question the true origin of this food favorite.
But many versions of the Rite Spot story differ wildly. In one version, Sternberger (right) comes up with the idea out of boredom as a teenager working at his father’s diner. In another, he invents the idea together with a friend to drum up business for the Rite Spot which he had purchased a few months earlier.
In still another, Sternberger adds cheese to a burger for a drifter who, suddenly flush with 15 cents, strolls into the Rite Spot and orders a burger “with everything on it.” It’s soon added to the menu as the “Aristocratic Burger,” a wry nod to the hobo who inspired it.
And these are just a few.
Most of the stories are spun by Sternberger himself in newspaper interviews, ever enhancing the mystique of his invention.
A plaque commemorating the location of the long-gone Rite Spot as the place where cheeseburgers were first served chooses 1924 as the origin date and lists Sternberger as 16 years old when he invented it.
People start raving about the new cheeseburger sandwich and before you know it, a 15-cent “Cheeseburger on bun” shows up on the menu at O’Dell's, a steak joint in nearby Los Angeles. The house specialties also include a cheeseburger smothered with chili for 25 cents and the “Royal Size” grilled hamburger smothered with spaghetti, chili beans and cheese (urrrp…) for 40 cents.
Meanwhile on the other side of the country, The Little Tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, starts promoting 10-cent cheeseburgers as a new creation exclusive to their sandwich shops.
Their 1932 newspaper ad, (left) discovered by Spencer Stewart of Diner Hunter, shows the words “Trade Mark” under the cheeseburger name. Perhaps it is an aspirational marketing ploy. The cheeseburger would be successfully trademarked in 1935 by Louis Ballast in Denver, Colorado.
Two years later, another “we did it first” claim is being touted by Carl Kaelin, owner of Kaelin’s, an old-time Louisville eatery. They start selling cheeseburgers soon after the restaurant opens in 1934.
In a 2018 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Irma Kaelin Raque, daughter of the restaurant’s owners, describes how her father came up with the idea. Her mom was cooking burgers one day when her dad suggested they put cheese on them and the yummy new sandwich craze took off.
So what if other restaurants were also serving burgers with cheese at that time. Kaelin explained, “people were putting cheese on burgers, but they didn’t talk about it like we did. We’ve had conversations with (some of the other ‘inventors’). They claim it and I claim it. But is it really that world-shaking?”
The popular eatery is now under new ownership and called 80/20 at Kaelin’s.
Out in Denver, Colorado, Louis Ballast is one of those inventors who is putting cheese on the burgers he serves at his popular Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In. The drive-in’s slogan is “We don’t make our sandwiches, we build ’em!” and Ballast builds his burgers topped with stuff like Hershey’s chocolate bars, peanut butter, and yes, cheese. It’s his burger topped with cheese that Ballast’s customers like best – the perfect complement to his homemade root beer.
Of all the other cheeseburger inventors, Ballast is the only one who actually files for a trademark on the cheeseburger, and gets it awarded in 1935. But he fails to take the next legal step to protect his new trademark. “And that’s why I’m not a millionaire,” his son David told The Denver Post in 2011.
Gus Belt opens the first Steak ‘n Shake restaurant in a former gas station in Normal, Illinois, in 1934. He comes up with the stunt of grinding raw T-bone, sirloin, and round steaks in full view of his diners, to assure them of the high quality of his burgers.
The restaurant starts serving its popular burgers topped with cheese around 1938. Belt seeks to have “steakburger,” along with other terms such as “cheeseburger,” trademarked with the State of Illinois at that time but there is no evidence that the trademarks were ever awarded.
Steak ‘n Shake eventually grows into a popular franchise operation with hundreds of locations worldwide.
Sometime in the 1930s
Jack Fitzgerald, who opened Jack’s Lunch in Middletown, Connecticut, in the 1920s, comes up with a very local variation of the cheeseburger sometime in the 1930s. Called a “hot cheese steamed hamburg,” “cheeseburg,” or simply “steamer.” Jack's square hamburger patties are steamed on trays in a special cooker and melted cheddar cheese is poured on top of the well-done burgers and served on rolls.
The steamed cheeseburger was thought to be a healthier and tastier alternative to the fried version at that time and many still agree. Jack’s Lunch is long gone but dozens of restaurants in the area still serve this popular local treat.
What would become the largest fast-food chain in the world opens as a small hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, on May 15, 1940. It’s called McDonald's Bar-B-Q, operated by brothers Dick and Maurice McDonald, and offers carhop service. The original menu includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, barbecue beef ribs, egg salad sandwiches, ham and eggs, and chili and beans, among dozens of other items.
The brothers simplify their menu in 1948 to what had become their bestsellers: 15-cent hamburgers, 19-cent cheeseburgers, and 10-cent French fries and soft drinks. Milkshakes are added in 1949. Ray Kroc buys the company in 1961 and the rest is history.
White Castle hamburger restaurant chain, the oldest fast-food chain in the world, opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, selling its classic hamburger sliders for 5 cents – “Buy ’em by the sack!”
In 1962 -- 41 years later – White Castle finally adds a new menu item to its classic lineup of midget sliders – a 14-cent cheeseburger!
Mallie’s Sports Bar & Grill in Southgate, Michigan, adds the largest commercially available cheeseburger to its menu. The 1,800 lb. monster costs $10,000. It must be ordered in advance as it takes three days to prepare and cook in specially constructed ovens.
McDonald’s, the world’s largest burger restaurant chain, starts selling Beyond Meat plant-based burgers with vegan cheese topping in September 2021.
The original “Olympia Restaurant” Saturday Night Live (January 28, 1978) “cheeseburgher” sketch featuring John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, and Robert Klein.
Photos (from top): Cheeseburger Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay; Reed Howe with Clara Bow eating a burger and drinking a Coke in “Rough House Rosie,” Paramount, 1927; Lionel Sternberger, by Martel & Howlett for the Pasadena Post, June 23, 1931, CityofPasadena.net; The Famous Rite Spot, Herman J. Schultheis Collection/Los Angeles Public Library; O’Dell’s 1928 menu, Los Angeles Public Library; Little Tavern Shops 1932 newspaper ad, Dinerhunter.com; Kaelin’s original neon sign, @8020atKaelins; Humpty Dumpty Barrell Restaurant postcard, Worthpoint.com; Steak ‘N Shake counter scene 1950s, Steaknshake.com; Jack’s Lunch vintage matchbook, eBay.com; McDonald’s newspaper ad, 1959; McDonald’s location 1962, McDonalds.com; White Castle cheeseburger, WhiteCastle.com; Largest cheeseburger available to order, Malliesgrill.com; McDonald's P.L.T. plant-based burger with cheese, McDonalds.com.