By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
Legend has it that the hamburger was invented by a Texan.
Specifically, Fletcher Davis, who supposedly traveled to the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, with a cooked ground beef patty creation from his restaurant in Athens.
Texans are so adamant about this claim that in 2007, state Rep. Betty Brown introduced a resolution to make Athens the "Original Home of the Hamburger."
While many historians still dispute the origin of the modern-day American hamburger, one thing is certain: Burgers are serious business in Texas, and Central Texas is not immune to the passion for the perfect patty, especially in Copperas Cove, Killeen and Lampasas.
In 2010, Rick Vanderpool named two local businesses to his list of top burger joints for his book, "The Texas Hamburger." The book documents more than 700 restaurants across the Lone Star State culled from the author's Top 30.
In Copperas Cove, locally owned Mel's Burger Joint was on Vanderpool's list.
Twelve years ago, Donald Steele, owner of Mel's, named the 1950s-themed diner after his wife. Today, the First Street restaurant's walls are lined with award plaques from restaurant guides, newspaper clippings and a who's-who of local celebrities who offered rave reviews of the diner's famed patties along with their autographs.
The burger spot is a classic vintage diner. Sock hop-era music plays as customers gaze at donated memorabilia and photographs while waiting for their food.
"I call it a total package," said Steele, who sat at a table while Johnny Mathis crooned "Chances Are" over the sound system. "It's got ambience, good food and something to keep you entertained."
Steele said he opened the diner to fill a void in the Copperas Cove's restaurant landscape. "There was nothing here but chains," he said.
In a short time, the diner exploded in popularity and received numerous awards.
"I think it was the right product at the right time in the right place," said Steele of the diner's laurels.
But for Steele, the accolades come down to one simple thing: selling a good burger. "I'm not saying it's the best burger in the whole world," he said. "But I have a really good hamburger."
He attributed the diner's success to maintaining the consistency of the product it delivers. "I train the cooks all myself, to cook them my way," said Steele.
Steele said he doesn't consider Mel's in competition with the major burger chains because he doesn't sell the same product, and his customers aren't looking for it either. At the diner, a hamburger costs $4.75; a cheeseburger is $5.25.
"I don't sell a 69-cent hamburger. I don't sell a little hamburger," he said. "I sell home-cut fries, where they sell nothing but frozen fries."
Black Meg comes to Killeen
At Black Meg's new Killeen location, co-owner John Vasseur spends considerable time counting supplies and checking stock after the busy lunch rushes. The spin-off of the well-established Copperas Cove burger stand is finishing its second week.
The restaurant's name derives from "Black Meg," a legendary Angus cow born in the 1800s and purchased by William Fullerton of Angus, Scotland, who bred and showed her for many years. Since more Angus cattle can be traced to Black Meg than any other heifer, some consider her the breed's founder.
Vasseur and his brother, Robert, opened Black Meg's 43 in Copperas Cove in 2010, seeking to fill a niche in an untapped market for independent burger fare.
For Vasseur, burgers are a lifelong business. The restaurateur attended McDonald's Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill., in the early 1980s. "That was a highly specialized program," he said. "It was people who were either going to be general managers or franchise owners."
Today, Vasseur attributes the success of Black Meg to the quality and quantity of its hamburgers. "We still serve 100 percent U.S. Angus beef," he said. "There are over 6 ounces of patty in every burger."
Like Mel's, Black Meg includes a top-secret seasoning blend to give its burgers a distinct flavor; a recipe he isn't ready to divulge.
"My brother, who's a trained chef, came up with it," said Vasseur, adding that his brother created all the sauces and special recipes on the menu, too.
Aside from Black Meg's popular $5 special, which includes a burger, fries and drink, Vasseur said other popular sellers were the Cowboy Burger, featuring bacon, onion rings and barbecue sauce, and the El Diablo Burger, which includes cactus and ghost peppers.
Vasseur said Black Meg uses some creative strategies to stay competitive in the local market. "The corporate chains have more money, obviously," he said. "They have a bigger buying power, so they can get products at a better price."
To gain an edge, Vasseur said he opts to forgo advertising, funneling that expense into his purchasing power. By buying better-quality ingredients, Vasseur said he's able to provide a better product at a better value.
"I give customers more for their money," he said.
The business strategy means the venue relies solely on word-of-mouth to capture its share of the local burger-eating audience, but Vasseur said it seems to work for Black Meg.
"Cove has really taken off," he said. "It's allowed us to open this (Killeen) location."
Elvis ate here
In Lampasas, hamburger enthusiasts can have the same burgers Elvis Presley enjoyed while stationed at Fort Hood as a young Army private.
Storm's, which also topped Vanderpool's list, opened in 1950 after milk truck driver J.B. Storm realized soft-serve ice cream was becoming a big hit across Texas.
The business originally opened as an ice cream stand and gradually evolved to serving hamburgers as the years progressed. Today, co-owner Mike Green serves the same style of burgers he has been offering since he acquired Storm's more than 30 years ago.
Green said the business' meat comes from its own processing plant, located behind the burger stand.
"We start with fresh meat. We grind it and patty it up ourselves," he said. "We control what goes into it. That sets us apart from other places."
For just under $10, the Storm's Special features fries, a drink and a special burger with three thin layers of meat, but Green said the key to its flavor is in the unique cooking method.
"We do a glaze on our burgers," he said. "The patty is caramelized on one side, which sets the flavor."
With locations in Lampasas, Burnet, Marble Falls and Hamilton, Storm's has a recipe that seems to work.
"A burger is good, old-fashioned comfort food," said Green. "It reminds (customers) of home, of the good old days. It's what they grew up on."
Operating a small burger stand can be relatively inexpensive, said Green. However, some of the biggest challenges lie in navigating a tricky beef market constantly at the whim of environmental or political factors.
Green, who buys all of his beef in Texas, said ranchers suffering from the prolonged drought in the summer were forced to sell their cattle quickly. "At that time, our prices went down," he said. "It made the market soft, with so many ranchers selling off their stock."
Beef prices have increased in the last two months as ranchers scramble to buy stock. But local fans and traveling tourists have kept business on an upswing.
"Our customers are loyal," said Green. "They've been coming here a long time, and they keep coming back."
'Good old-fashioned burger'
Billy Bob's Burgers serves distinctive burger creations at three locations in Killeen.
Owner Chip Wells said the awards his diner's hamburgers receive are the result of one thing: simplicity. "It's just a good old-fashioned burger," he said.
Quality ingredients, he said, are the biggest factor in the local chain's success. "The first and most important thing is that our burger is very fresh," he said. "It's never frozen. It never touches a freezer."
Wells said Billy Bob's locations use fresh ground beef, purchased and ground every day. "All the vegetables are bought fresh every day, too," he said. "Everything is fresh. That's what really sells the burgers."
One key to successful growth, said Wells, is listening to customer feedback.
"We had a customer who worked (at a business) next door," he said. "He came up with an idea to have a corn dog, cut in half, with onion rings on a double cheeseburger." Wells was so intrigued with the idea he added it to the menu and dubbed it the Cowboy Deluxe.
For local proprietors, such as Steele, Vasseur, Green and Wells, their job is about satisfying diverse customer tastes to capture their share of the local burger market.
"No two burgers go out the same," said Wells. "Every customer wants something different. One customer might want light mayo. One might want extra mustard, and the next one might go out the complete opposite. Our job is to give them exactly what they want: a great-tasting burger."
Contact Rebecca Rose at email@example.com or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHBusinessNews.
Area burger joints
Billy Bob's Burgers
421 Liberty St., Killeen
3921 E. Stan Schlueter Loop, Killeen
1600 Stonetree Drive, Killeen
Black Meg's 43
406 E. Rancier Ave., Killeen
1501 U.S. Highway 190, Copperas Cove
Mel's Burger Joint
302 S. First St., Copperas Cove
201 N. Key Ave., Lampasas