When a raspberry shake order comes through at Mattoon's one-of-a-kind Burger King, some senior employees know the customer might be John Cowger.
Cowger started ordering the shakes 50 years ago with his fellow newspaper carriers, who had a daily meeting of sorts to wrap newspapers on a bench outside what was then called Frigid Queen.
Now Cowger and his family go to the Mattoon Burger King after church every Sunday, and they expect to see familiar faces among the other customers. One of them is Clarence Upton, who always has a piece of candy for each of the Cowger grandchildren.
"It's a tradition," Cowger said.
The Charleston Avenue Burger King, owned by Gene and Betty Hoots, has received substantial publicity through the years, much related to an early 1960s legal battle with the national restaurant chain that bears the identical name. The Mattoon Burger King has been showcased on the "Today" show and has been featured in newspapers worldwide. The guestbook has recent entries from Alaska and Thailand.
But as Gene and Betty Hoots celebrated 50 years in business last month, the focus was on the close relationship between employees and customers that has been the cornerstone to their success, and which keeps them coming to work in the mornings.
One Burger King tradition, for example, is a morning crew of people like Upton, Tom Gover, Jerry Rider and Cliff Metzger, who regularly have coffee and doughnuts at about 8 a.m.
"This is a social time for a lot of people." Betty Hoots said.
Another tradition involves 25-cent milkshakes for youth league teams who come in after a summer ball game.
"One night we had 13 teams in here," Hoots said. "We love baseball, and that's a good publicity thing that works."
Registering the Burger King name as a trademark in Illinois seemed like the prudent thing to do when Gene and Betty Hoots adopted the name for their business in 1956.
"They thought Burger King would work nicely with Frigid Queen," which was the name of the ice cream store they had been operating, explained Mattoon attorney Harlan Heller. "They protected the name by registering as a trademark in the state of Illinois."
A few years later, a company in Florida began expanding across the country with the same Burger King name. That Burger King had a federal trademark.
Heller, as the attorney for the Mattoon Burger King, had a conversation with Florida Burger King officials, in which he contended they couldn't use the Burger King name in Illinois. The national Burger King responded that the Mattoon Burger King couldn't keep its name.
It was the basis for a federal lawsuit that has been used for teaching purposes in many law schools, including the one at the University of Illinois.
"The court found that the federal registration granted them (the Florida company) the right to use the name across the country and across Illinois," Heller said. "But it also found that the Hootses were good-faith users and able to use the mark in Mattoon and a 20-mile radius."
Thus the national Burger King has been shut out of the Mattoon area, which has six McDonald's restaurants.