Today (May 28th) is “National Hamburger Day,” a day of great importance to Western New York and the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York. It was at the 1885 Erie County Fair that the hamburger sandwich was invented by Frank and Charles Menches of Canton, Ohio.
“Birth of the Hamburger in Hamburg”
Canton, Ohio natives Frank and Charles Menches were food vendors at the 1885 Erie County Fair, also known as the Hamburg Fair. Legend has it that during the course of the Fair, the Menches ran out of their signature menu item of pork sausage sandwiches. Their local supplier, Hamburg butcher Andrew Klein, was reluctant to butcher more hogs during a period of unseasonable late summer heat and suggested to substitute the use of ground beef. The brothers fired some up, but both found it dry and bland. They added coffee, brown sugar and other ingredients to create a unique taste. The original sandwiches were sold with just ketchup and sliced onions. With new found success with their beef sandwich, they christened it the “hamburger” sandwich after the Erie County Fair’s home town of Hamburg, New York.
Relishing in the Menches Success!
There have been other claims made about the origin of the hamburger sandwich. As concessionaire traveled from one fair to another, it was common to emulate the success of other vendors and share “best practices.” As a result, they would make claims of their own as the “burger” made regional debuts:
- October 1885 – After learning about the Menches success, fair concessionaire Charlie Nagreen claimed to have sold a meatball between two slices of bread at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin.
- Late 1880s – Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas claimed to have invented the hamburger. According to oral histories he opened a lunch counter and served a ‘burger’ of fried ground beef patties with mustard and Bermuda onion between two slices of bread, with a pickle on the side. Davis later went on to sell the burger at the 1904 World’s Fair.
- 1891 – Otto Kuase said he invented the hamburger in 1891 after he cooked a beef patty in butter and topped with a fried egg.
- 1900 – Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, is said to have sold the first hamburger and steak sandwich in the U.S. in 1900, 15 years after the Menches Bros.
Why the Erie County Fair Menches Hamburger Story “Cuts the Mustard”
- The Menches Brothers 1885 claim is the oldest “birth of the burger” sandwich story in the United States.
- No other invention story can stake a claim to why their sandwich is called a “hamburger,” our story can!
- Descendants of the Menches Brothers have an original, handwritten burger recipe.
- The Menches family is still in the burger business today. No other claim still has an operating restaurant serving the original recipe.
- In the 1920s, carnival historian John C. Kunzog interviewed Frank Menches about his experience at the Erie County Fair. His detailed hamburger story was published in the 1970 book, “Tanbark & Tinsel.”
- Successful entrepreneurs, the Menches not only claim hamburger history, but are also credited for pioneering the production of ice cream cones and creating “Gee-Whiz,” a caramel coated peanut and popcorn snack now known as Cracker Jacks.
- The National Hamburger Festival is held annually in the Menches home town of Akron, Ohio. Restaurants from across the United States gather to pay homage to good ol’ Frank & Charles Menches.
- Founded in 1985 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Menches Brothers invention, The Village of Hamburg hosts the annual BurgerFest and is one of the biggest annual events in the region.
- The invention of the hamburger story is featured in an exhibit inside the Erie County Fair’s Heritage & History Center Museum. The display includes a child’s sized burger concession stand that allows kids to “serve up” play hamburgers.
- News outlets around the globe including the BBC to Japanese national television have told the Erie County Fair story over the decades. The 1885 Burger Store, a restaurant in Taipei City, Taiwan, China, honors the Erie County Fair legend.
National Birth of the Burger Day (September 18th)
In addition to “National Hamburger Day” on May 28, Western New York also annually celebrates “National Birth of the Burger Day” on September 18th. Until the early 1920s, the Erie County Fair was held mid to late September or as late as early October to celebrate the agricultural harvest. The 1885 Erie County Fair, the event that saw the invention of the hamburger sandwich, was held September 16th-18th, 1885.