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COLUMN: Generations have fond memories of Kewpee’s in Utica

Lou Parrotta, City of Utica Historian
Posted 10/1/22

“Hamburger, pickle on top, makes you go flippity flop!” And so went the slogan that was familiar to thousands of Central New Yorkers from 1939-1973.

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COLUMN: Generations have fond memories of Kewpee’s in Utica


UTICA — “Hamburger, pickle on top, makes you go flippity flop!”

And so went the slogan that was familiar to thousands of Central New Yorkers from 1939-1973, when arguably the most famous hamburger stand in all of the Mohawk Valley operated in Oneida Square in downtown Utica.

Kewpee’s, officially known as the Kewpee Hotel though no hotel accompanied the restaurant, was originally opened in post-World War I Flint, Michigan, with the name deriving from the Rosie O’Neill-designed Kewpie Doll of 1910.

At one point, more than 400 restaurants existed, mostly located in the Midwest in places like Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

In 1938, Utica applied for a franchise, and by mid-July 1939, the restaurant would officially open. It was a 1,100-piece, pre-fabricated metal building that arrived in Utica on a 10-ton truck from Cincinnati, Ohio. It was made by the Globe-Wernicke Company, and at the time, it was thought to be Utica’s largest pre-built metal building.

The lure of Kewpee’s, besides being open 24 hours a day, centered on the fact that one could drive into the parking lot and the waitress would come out to the car, take the patrons’ orders, and then return with the square hamburger, a flat bun with condiments like ketchup, pickles and onions.

People of all ages, young and old, would eat in the small restaurant with mini-jukeboxes at each booth where you could listen to three songs for 25 cents or in the comfort of their large cars by today’s standards. This was similar to how the old TV show “Happy Days” started.

To get service, one was instructed not to beep the horn of their car. Instead, a neon sign was attached to the building with “Don’t beep the horn, Flash Lights for Service” on it.

The first owner-operator of the Utica Kewpee’s was Sylvan S. Spink. An Ohio native, Spink and his family relocated to Utica in 1939 to spearhead the restaurant. He operated the restaurant under two sound principals: one, motorists were more and more loath to leave their cars; and two, if one is hungry, by the time a parking space is found in a modern city, one has lost one’s appetite.

Spink ran the restaurant until his death in 1970.

The restaurant expanded its parking area in 1959 and bought three buildings adjoining its property and had them razed to add more parking spaces for automobiles. One of the buildings torn down was former Utica Mayor Efraim Chamberlain’s Civil War-era Bosworth Mansion, which was one of the earlier buildings in Utica to have a gas pipeline installed to light a gas streetlight.

Kewpee’s suffered the first of two fires on December 13, 1963. That morning, a fire damaged the grease ducts, the basement and the electrical system. Almost six years later, on May 13, 1969, another fire broke out in the basement shortly before 11:30 p.m.

The contents of the cellar suffered extensive damage, while the main floor sustained smoke and water damage. This fire was under control by the Utica Fire Department by 12:22 a.m. Neither fire would put an end to the beloved eatery’s operations.

At one point in the first half of the 20th century, Oneida Square housed Hogan’s Grill and Park Avenue Sandwich Shop in addition to Kewpee’s, the favorite hangout of Utica College students. By 1966, Oneida Square was home to three fast food-type restaurants. Besides Kewpee’s, Jiffy King Sub Shop and Cactus Jack Restaurant called the area home.

Another restaurant, Colonel Sander’s Fried Chicken (the future Kentucky Fried Chicken) was also in the preparation stages.

By the 1970s, the restaurant began to suffer from diminished patronage. The owners were offered a significant sum of money to sell the site, and on Dec. 28, 1972, the city of Utica Planning Board gave scenic and historical approval for demolition of the building.

At the end of February 1973, the famed Kewpee’s, with its large Kewpee Doll that rotated, was razed and soon a new hamburger joint with a drive-thru would be built – Burger King.

If interested, the Oneida County History Center has commemorative puzzles of Kewpee’s for sale.

They are true treasures and make wonderful gifts!


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