The butter burger is Wisconsin’s deliciously messy contribution to the burger canon. But what makes a butter burger?
For some, it’s when the ground meat is mixed with butter. For others, it’s only a butter burger when the bun is toasted in butter and crowned with a pat of butter before it’s served. Everyone agrees there should be enough butter to drip off of the hot patty and pool into a puddle on your plate.
Glenn Fieber, the owner of Solly’s Grille in Milwaukee—a place of butter burger pilgrimage—could eat one every day if he wanted to (but he doesn’t). He says it’s a burger that’s just hard to dislike, and it’s not because he’s in the business of making them. “You got the taste of the hot juicy sirloin, you’ve got the butter—the melting butter—the delicious bun.” Here is the history of the butter burger as best we could piece it together:
1885: Fifteen-year-old Charlie Nagreen goes to the Seymour fair in Wisconsin to sell meatballs. To make it easier for fairgoers to walk around while they eat, as the story goes, he decides to serve the meatballs between slices of bread. The town of Seymour now has a statue of Hamburger Charlie, whose chant went something like this: “Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger hot, with an onion in the middle and a pickle on top, makes your lips go flippity flop, come on over, try an order, fried in butter, listen to it sputter.” Whether or not Wisconsin was the birthplace of the hamburger, as many in Seymour claim it is, Nagreen’s version was most likely the precursor to the state’s beloved butter burger.
1895: Butter becomes big business in the dairy state. It becomes illegal for public eating houses, prisons, hospitals, schools, and other state institutions to substitute margarine for butter. According to Wisconsin Statute 97.18, better known as the “oleomargarine regulations,” margarine can only be used if the customer specifically asks for it. Some lawmakers tried to get this wiped off the books in 2011, but last we checked, it still holds.
1936: Harry and Caroline Kroll set up a diner in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Their Kroll’s Hamburger is topped with a pat of Wisconsin butter and served on a toasted bun. Today, there’s a Kroll’s East, recognized as a historic site by the city of Green Bay, and a Kroll’s West. They’re owned by two different families, but both still use butter on their charcoal-grilled burgers.
1936: Kenneth “Solly” Salmon serves his first burger in Milwaukee. Solly’s Coffee Shop, long since renamed Solly’s Grille, is widely regarded as the home of the original butter burger. “Solly liked butter on his burgers. He put lots of butter on his hamburgers and it started being known as a butter burger,” says Glenn Fieber, Solly’s stepson and current owner of the diner. The patties are still griddled to well done and served on a toasted bun with stewed onions and a huge dollop of butter—Fieber says it works out to about a tablespoon for each burger, at the least. “Other places don’t put the butter on as thick as we do and get the full effect of a good melting butter burger,” he says. “Some people brush it on, some people roll it on—we take a knife and put a good glop of butter on the burger. And that’s a real butter burger.” According to George Motz’s documentary Hamburger America, Solly’s goes through 125 to 150 pounds of butter per week.
1950: Elsa Kopp opens a custard stand in the Greater Milwaukee area. Kopp’s Frozen Custard soon becomes a Milwaukee staple, but their jumbo-sized butter burgers—now available at three locations in Wisconsin—also win a loyal following. At Kopp’s, the standard burger is made with ketchup, mustard, and pickles—and is dripping with butter.
1984: Craig and Lea Culver open the first Culver’s in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Their butter burgers have a registered trademark: ButterBurger®. Culver’s ads make it clear that Culver’s burgers are not “fried, slathered, steeped, basted, drenched, or marinated and topped with butter.” Instead, you get a burger on a “lightly buttered toasted bun.”
1999: Errol Morris creates a thirty-two-second spot fetishizing the butter burger for Miller High Life. The High Life Man works hard, plays hard, and likes his burgers grilled with a whole slab of butter: “There. Now that’s a sandwich. And there’s only one beer that can stand up to a man’s meal.” According to Punch, Morris’ butter-burger loving High Life Man boosted beer sales for Miller’s from 1998 to 2003. The burger depicted in the spot resembles the Solly’s-style heavily buttered burger, perhaps demonstrating that, trademarks aside, when we think of a “butter burger,” we are thinking of a burger drenched in butter.
July 7, 2008: The butter burger is inducted into the website Urban Dictionary. The definition: “the best food in the world.” Suggested use in a sentence? “This butter burger is amazing.”
July 2009: Indianapolis-based Steak ‘n Shake announces its version of a butter burger, the Wisconsin Buttery Steakburger™. Their burger has “real Wisconsin butter” melted on top, and it’s topped with American cheese and grilled onions.
January 2015: California burger chain Jack in the Box introduces the “Classic Buttery Jack” at select locations, which has garlic herb butter melted on top of every quarter-pound patty. By April, the company reports an 8.9 percent increase in comparative sales, driven in large part by the Buttery Jack—which it says is their most successful new product in at least the last fourteen years.
July 12, 2015: Ernest Hemingway @hemingwayme tweets: “Butter burger. Such contempt for human life I have yet to see surpassed.”