Heaven in a little Brown Bag: For more than 50 years, Krekel's serving up tasty hamburgers

By SHEILA SMITH - H&R Staff Writer

DECATUR - The Krekel family has heard it time and again: You haven't really lived in Decatur until you've had a Krekel's burger.

Those flattened burgers with the crispy edges have been a phenomenon for more than 50 years.

Bill Krekel opened his first restaurant on Eldorado Street in 1953. Since his death in 2003, the burgers have been a true representation of a family's legacy of love.

Krekel's on Wood Street

Jason and Pam Edwards have done their best to strengthen the community's love affair with the Krekel hamburger and frozen custard.

"I'm very proud of what my grandfather did and created," said Pam Edwards. She and her husband, Jason, co-manage the Krekel's on East Wood Street.

"It's amazing how much a hamburger makes someone happy," Jason Edwards said.

Bill Krekel's daughter, Kim, and her husband, Brad Patient, took over ownership of the hamburger stand on Wood Street in 1992. They now have their daughter, Pam, and Jason manage it in exchange for baby-sitting the grandchildren.

Patient said he has many memories of working at age 14 for Bill Krekel.

"That's how I met my wife," he laughed. "I remember Mr. Krekel asking me to take his daughter to the prom."

Patient said Krekel knew what he was talking about when it came to the business.

"People would tell him that he had a gold mine, and he would say, 'Yeah, and you have to have someone here to mine it,' " Patient said.

The biggest secret, Patient said, is how the hamburger meat is ground at a meat packing plant and delivered fresh every morning and cooked on the grill.

He claims, however, there is something special about the flavor of the burgers at the Wood Street location.

"Mr. Krekel always said this was his oldest store, and the flavor was baked into the walls," Patient said.

Krekel's Custard in Mount Zion

Troy Teel is the fry cook, grill master and manager of the Krekel's on Illinois 121 in Mount Zion.

His mother, Suzanne, is the daughter of Bill Krekel. She owns the Krekel's on U.S. 36 in Decatur and the Mount Zion location.

Teel said it's nothing to sell 850 hamburgers in a couple of hours on a Saturday and at least 500 or more during lunch hour rush during the week.

"Kids go away to college and come back home for the weekend and say they want to eat at Krekel's or Monical's Pizza," said Teel, 43.

While most people don't question the food, a popular query concerns the ever-present chicken car and monstrous cow on display in front of the Mount Zion restaurant.

Teel said the cow was a trademark of the former restaurant before his grandfather purchased the building and turned it into a Krekel's.

As far as the chicken car, Teel said a man by the name of Paul White was driving around with a cow on top of his El Camino. His grandfather asked him where he got it. Soon Krekel came up with up his own chicken head that still rests on top of that same car.

"Maybe it was an attention-getter, but my grandfather was a character," Teel said.

Krekel's Custard West

The Krekel's in the Colonial Mall off Oakland Avenue changed ownership in September.

Todd Teel purchased the business from his mother, Suzanne Teel.

He said the restaurant stays pretty busy, and people love those crispy edges on their hamburgers.

He said he worked for his grandfather, Bill Krekel, from the time he was 14 until he was 18.

"We kind of butted heads," he admitted. "But now that I'm older, I understand why he was the way he was with his business and building a future for his family."

He said his grandfather was a generous man. "If a homeless person came in off the street, he would give them free food."

Todd Teel has not seen the family's hamburger business slow down any. "It's surprising how many people come in and say they need their Krekel fix," he said.

Krekel's Kustard North

Chad Krekel grills away as his sister Kayla is beside him fixing hamburgers at the Krekel's just off North Woodford Street.

Their father, Rick Krekel, died after a car accident in 2004. He started the Krekel's store in 1987, which was the last one to open in Decatur.

"The first day we opened, I cried," said his widow, Renee Krekel. "We only had $300, but my husband wasn't worried. Mr. (Bill) Krekel also helped us."

But she believes the Krekel family has a good product.

"People ask me all the time if we have something with no grease. I tell them no, most everything we have here clogs your arteries," she said and laughed.

"I tell everybody the best thing about our hamburgers is the grease," Chad Krekel added.

Renee Krekel continues her husband's business and will soon hand over to her children their family legacy.

"What has made us such a success, is that God has blessed all of us," she said.