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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003 02:20 pm

The burger king and queen of Mattoon

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The Burger King has long served as a hangout for Mattoon’s young people.

Gene and Betty Hoots bought a successful ice-cream stand in Mattoon in the early 1950s. A few years later, the young couple decided to expand the business by adding hamburgers, french fries and other items to the menu. So they fixed up a two-car garage behind the Frigid Queen, adding a grill and a counter for customers. But when it came time to give the new business a name, they were stumped.

A carpenter who remodeled the garage had a suggestion. " 'Since "Frigid Queen" is going to be on the front of the lot,' he said, 'why don't you call this back area "The Hot Dames"?' " Gene recalls, laughing. "We were in Mattoon, Ill., and couldn't get away with something like that. So we continued to wrestle with a series of possible names."

It was Betty who came up with the answer. A queen needs a king, she said: Let's call the new business "Burger King."

Gene's uncle, Bill Paullin, who sold the couple the ice-cream business in 1952, advised Gene to be sure to register the new name with the state. In 1959, two years after Gene started flipping burgers, the Hootses became the official owners and operators of the only Burger King in Illinois.

But another king of ground beef was stirring, and this one had an appetite for growth. In 1954, James McLamore and Dave Edgarton opened a restaurant in Miami known as Insta-Burger-King. By 1957, the chain they had launched -- renamed Burger King Corp. -- had more than three dozen restaurants in the South, and its sights were set on territory north of the Mason-Dixon Line. When the Hootses read an article in an industry publication announcing that Burger King Corp. was coming to Skokie, Ill., Gene says, "It came as quite a shock."

After all, the Hootses had a registered Illinois trademark, giving them what they thought was an exclusive right to use the "Burger King" name all over Lincolnland.

"I took the article down to our attorney," Gene says. "He said, 'They can't do that -- without your permission.' "

But they did.

The corporation opened the Skokie restaurant in 1961, then another in Champaign. By 1967, the chain had 50 restaurants in Illinois. The Hootses had no choice: It was time to do battle.

Letters went back and forth. The Hootses sued. The corporation countersued. When the case went to trial in federal court in 1967, the Hootses were nervous. They had Harlan Heller of Mattoon as their lawyer; Betty remembers the president of Burger King showing up in court with at least six lawyers in tow.

Ultimately the courts decided that the Hootses had indeed grabbed the Burger King name first in Illinois but that the corporation had a nationwide trademark. "We never fully understood what happened in that courtroom and how our certificate could have been misconstrued like that," Gene says.

Burger King -- the corporation, not the Hootses -- prevailed, but Betty and Gene didn't get whoppered completely.

"They gave us a 20-mile radius that the Burger King Corp. could not come into," Betty recalls. Mattoon, she says, "is the only place in the world where they can't build a store and operate it without getting our permission and paying us for that right. One time they offered us $10,000 to put one in, but we told them to get lost," she adds.

Burger King of Florida, Inc. v. Gene Hoots and Betty Hoots d/b/a Burger King became a celebrated case -- at least in law schools, where the decision is studied in courses on intellectual-property rights. "Our daughter-in-law is now an attorney," Betty says. "She took law classes at Columbia University. She was sitting in class one day, half-listening to the professor, when he said, 'Today we'll discuss Hoots v. Burger King.' " That got her attention. " 'Those are my in-laws,' she told him," Betty says. "Apparently our struggle became a landmark case."

Today, Miami-based Burger King has 11,350 locations in 58 countries, but nothing in Mattoon. You don't have to go far to find one, though: There's a Burger King in Tuscola, just 22 miles north of Mattoon on Interstate 57, and another in Effingham, 25 miles to the south.

These days Gene and Betty winter in Florida, but when they're in the Sunshine State, they're still minding the store, phoning in daily. "Once we're down there, Gene and I can hardly wait to get back home for a good cheeseburger," Betty says. "We don't eat them down there [in Florida]: They are just too disappointing."

The Hootses love their cheeseburgers, but that's not their only passion. Though he can't read music, Gene's an accomplished songwriter -- his credits include the song "Reunion Times," recorded in the early 1960s by Ernie Ashworth, a former regular at the Grand Ole Opry. Gene says melodies come to him in his head, and he works the songs out at the piano, recording them over and over until they sound right. Not every song he does is country-flavored; some, he says, sound "more like something Mozart would have written."

Several years ago, Gene hooked up with Thomas LeVeck, a classical violinist married to a doctor in Mattoon. LeVeck had formed a string group, the LeVeck Quartet, and one day he and Gene got to talking about music. Not only did LeVeck agree to listen to Gene's tapes, but the LeVeck Quartet ended up recording Gene's music on a 34-minute CD titled, appropriately, The LeVeck Quartet Plays Music by Gene Hoots. "You can't imagine how proud I felt to hear two concerts of my music performed live at Lakeland College," Gene says.

With Gene and Betty now in their seventies, is it just a matter of time before Burger King gives in -- and the Whopper arrives in Mattoon?

The Hootses say no way. Son Brent has promised his parents he'll keep the business on Charleston Avenue going. "If we become unable to run Burger King, Brent has assured us he will be right down here to take over," says Betty.

Brent, reached by phone in Barrington, where he lives, says he plans to carry on the family tradition but hopes he won't have to step up anytime soon. "I expect my parents to live to be 95 to 100, God willing. But if something unforeseen happens to them, I will step in and see that Burger King continues to operate," he says.

"Burger King has always been a family business. My parents started off as dirt-poor farm kids, and they built up a business from nothing. My sister, Debbie, and I literally grew up in that store. The Burger King has always been a part of my life and is near and dear to my heart."

Even his grandmother Catherine worked at the restaurant, for more than 30 years. One hot day, she left the store, went home, took off her shoes and turned on the air conditioner. That's the way they found her: dead of a massive heart attack, still wearing her Burger King uniform.

Brent says that when he moved away to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later, when he lived in Colorado, his mother and father made sure Burger King remained part of his life. "My parents packed frozen cheeseburgers into a box and shipped them to me in Colorado, overnight," he says. "I don't know how healthy that was, but they sure tasted good."

Although today's Burger King resembles a medium-size steakhouse on the outside, the interior still has many of the original fixtures, including the walk-up order counter. You'll find a jukebox and pinball machines, an American flag in the window and memorabilia spanning more than five decades on the walls. The food hasn't changed much over the years: A regular cheeseburger costs $1.63, a "Hooter" (quarter-pound burger with cheese, tomato and lettuce) is a mere $2.95. Other menu items include chicken tenders, fish sandwiches, BLTs, and hot dogs. And the Frigid Queen is still serving milk shakes and ice cream.

The place continues to have a family feel to it -- Mattoon's young people have been hanging out there for nearly 50 years. If your team won a game, you went to the Burger King to celebrate. When your class had a reunion, going to the Burger King completed the experience. Dozens of kids were employed at the Burger King over the years; some met their future spouses there. A few, like Bill Douglas, stuck around. Douglas started there when he was 16; now a manager, he's completing his 44th year behind the counter.

Gene says the chains can't compare to his restaurant, where the ground beef is purchased fresh each day. "We still make our burgers the same way they were made the day we opened our doors," he says. "The hamburger we purchased today will be totally gone before the noon hour tomorrow."

"We understand why the chains can't compete in this area. How can they grind their meat in Chicago, for example, put it on a truck and deliver it all over the place within 24 hours -- and then do it again tomorrow?"

The Hootses have sampled fast food at the competition. "We don't take anybody lightly these days," Gene says.

And they've even eaten at corporate Burger Kings.

"They appear to be one of the better fast-food chains," he allows. "I like their food much better than McDonald's."

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