Sometime in the future: the first Native American-Polish, ambidextrous, former college hockey star, soccer mom Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court hands down the long-awaited ruling on who owns the right to market and sell the ground beef patty sandwich historically known as the "hamburger." The obviously high court decides in favor of the plaintiff in Weber's Superior Root Beer Restaurant vs. McDonald's Corp. Indeed, Weber's did, in fact, invent and name the hamburger, says the Court.
All of a sudden, this prototypical American sandwich begins making a comeback. Sushi dives, salad bars wilt, Buffalo wings fly away, pizza loses its pizzaz.
A new U.S. regulatory agency, BUNS, is created to police how a hamburger is made, operating much like the Italian government regulates Parmesan Cheese, and how the French protect Champagne.
If you want to make a hamburger, make it right or fight. Weber's hamburger rules and revives an American tradition as well as provides a huge upturn in the economy.
"There is nothing about this country that a good, old-fashioned ham-burger on a bun won't cure!" said octogenarian Harold Bilby, announcing his candidacy as the oldest person ever to make a run for President. Forsaking a prepared speech and embarking on his campaign at a San Juan fundraiser in the 51st state, he ate a dozen burgers and promised a hamburger stand on every street corner in America by mid-century and a burger on Mars by 2075.
News Item: Weber's Superior Root Beer Restaurant hires a local company to handle its bid to begin franchising its concept, starting with Oklahoma and into the Midwest and beyond. After a few years of letting nature take its course, the battle brews.
"And we all know how that one ended," said Bilby, grandson of Weber's founder Oscar Weber Bilby and president and CEO of the operation.
"What we'll do once we get our franchises going is, since Weber's Superior Root Beer Restaurant owns the hamburger-on-the-bun, we'll ask McDonald's and the like to quit using the name, 'hamburger.' Maybe they could use the name, 'Little Macky,' or something. We own the rights to the hamburger, and anybody else serving it is doing that at their own risk."
According even to the likes of Oklahoma's favorite travel writer and character from Disney's animated movie Cars, Michael Willis, the hamburger is a Green Country original. Just ask former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating--he'll tell you who first put the beef patty on the bun.
This larger-than-life story doesn't start much differently than ones told by any other third-or fourth-generation Oklahoman. Harold's grandfather, whom he and the rest of the family has always called Grandpa Weber, arrived on the rolling prairie in the late 19th century in a covered wagon with his wife, Fanny, in tow. The Bilbys set up housekeeping on a homestead totaling hundreds of acres worth of farmland in northeastern Oklahoma, just a few miles from present-day Tulsa.
But then, the story gets interesting. One day, Grandpa Weber threw together 14 different roots, barks, spices and juices with a load of white sugar, set it on fire and then put the whole mess in birch bark barrels for a piece. Later, he thought he'd see what the mixture had come to taste like.
Doing this wasn't anything special compared to what his fellow Oklahoma farmers were doing.
During those days, the majority of folks made their own root beer; but the thing was, Oscar's root beer ended up with a distinctive taste. It was so distinctive, in fact, that Harold remembered his grandfather telling tales of settlers coming from miles away to snag a jug of his homebrew.
The mystique of the stuff is just as important an ingredient as the 150 pounds of white, granulated sugar that's in every batch--you won't see a drop of corn syrup within a mile of a frosty mug of Weber's root beer, Harold promised. Oscar Weber Bilby refused to divulge the recipe--even to his wife.
Today, just three individuals know the recipe for the root beer that first belched forth from the depths of Grandpa Weber's barn: Harold, now 75, and two of his sons, Rick, 52, and Mickey Bilby, 41.
Mickey, who admits to being a little sketchy about the 2nd generation of Bilbys, acknowledges his recollection of Oscar having only one son, Leo, Harold's father, who was apparently not much interested in the restaurant business.
So it has been up to the remaining men to run the historic business, though they rarely have the opportunity to gather for a few mugs of the frosty stuff. The family also has interests in maintaining 50-year history in the insurance business. It is understandable that their understanding of chance would include a catastrophe that could, with just one explosive batch of homebrew, wipe the secret recipe off the face of the earth forever. Thus, a backup job.
"All anybody needs to know about our root beer is that it's made with 14 natural roots, barks, spices and juices, fire-brewed and flavor-aged in birch bark barrels and served right at the peak of the flavor cycle," Harold Bilby recited. "That's all you need to know to enjoy the world's most delicious soft drink."
Contrary to urban legend, "the original root beer recipe was not alcoholic. The only thing we've changed about the original recipe is add carbonation," said Mickey Bilby, the Bilby brother in charge of Weber's franchise operations.
But, at more than 76 years old, the brew, older than any puny American-style lager, made right here in Tulsa, thick enough to coat the mouth of any man or woman and with enough sugar to send the Yankees back north of the Mason-Dixon line, is worth a quaff or two.
We all bring the happy scents of sizzling burgers and brats to the air with our grills during the summer, especially on Independence Day. But on one particular Fourth of July, 16 years before statehood, Oscar Weber Bilby made what his grandson Harold and great-grandsons said was his greatest contribution to society, greater even than the mysterious recipe for Weber's root beer: A slab of iron forged into a 12-square-foot grill.
That same day, Fanny got the notion to mixing sourdough rolls while Oscar pattied up Black Angus and fired it over the handmade grill. The taste of that first-ever "real" burger--it'd be a full 118 years old, if it had survived that first Fourth of July celebration--is still locked in that grill.
Something to Eat with That Root Beer?
A present-day Tulsan can have a taste of it anytime. Simply order a fresh, never frozen, burger at the Weber's stand on Brookside at 3817 S. Peoria Ave., the home of that ancestral iron maiden.
All other so-called burgers at the time were actually a sort of patty melt, Mickey claims, given the beef patties weren't sandwiched between buns but rather two flimsy slices of bread.
"He stumbled into inventing the hamburger because he didn't like his patty on two slices of bread--he thought it was too greasy," Mickey said.
"It's really not a hamburger unless it's on a bun," Harold added. "Now there's more than 25 million hamburgers served here in the U.S. every year, and it all started with Grandpa Weber. All those other restaurants are copycats."
Until 1933, Oscar Weber Bilby's burgers--drippy enough, apparently, to require the support of buns--were a special treat enjoyed only by the Bilby family and their closest friends every summer. After decades of prodding, Grandpa Weber opened the first Weber's Superior Root Beer Stand in a corner lot of what would become Tulsa's all-time greatest cruising strip.
For those who like the taste of burgers but prefer supple arteries opposed to ones as hard and crusty as the iron centenarian grill in the Weber's kitchen, the restaurant offers the 21st Century Low-Fat Burger. This beef patty boasts just 95 calories, contrasted with about 250 calories in conventional beef and about 170 calories in the same amount of skinless, roasted chicken.
"Most people roll their eyes at it," Mickey said. "I knew I'd get that reaction. We have to talk people into trying it. We tested it as a niche product for the health conscious--honestly, our female clientele. There's a big misconception about fat and better burgers."
The beef, from the Piedmontese cows raised by Natural Farms of Tulsa, is 94 percent lean and "just as tasty as the normal burger. You can't tell the difference," Mickey claimed. When this reporter tried to order a taste, she was informed Weber's was fresh out of this particular item.
"They're so popular, we can't keep them in stock," Mickey shrugged.
Today's Weber's stand--all 765 square feet of it--isn't quite the original, but it was built in sight of where that first stand stood, right in the same Brookside Market parking lot.
Who knows? Had it not been for Grandpa Weber, we yuppies might not be able to flash our credit cards at Aberson's or Andoe Works or, on those days when we don't quite feel like root beer and a burger, Lava, KEO or Oliver's Twist.
Wait. Was it Weber's or Pennington's that built Brookside? Maybe that is another story for another time. As for now, BruHouse, Jewel and all the rest, tip your buns to Weber's.
Because a gallon or so of each vat of root beer, brewed on-site in the same kettle as was used by Grandpa Weber, is saved back after each batch is made, there's a taste of 1933 in every glass. Just as the burgers sport the taste of cows butchered a century ago on the next-to-last frontier, so does the root beer; it gives present-day 401(k) lamenters a taste of the days of the Great Depression. Who else can ensure this but Oscar Weber Bilby's own grandson, Harold Bilby, stopping by the shop almost daily for a taste test.
And those observant souls who wonder why the staff at the Weber's root beer stand all look alike can stop wondering. Everybody behind the indoor drive-through window that separates the dining room from the kitchen/brewery is kin, from Harold's son to Mickey's niece to Rick's wife's sister. When the pay is partly in burgers, not much more is required to keep the staff happy and the restaurant running smoothly, even if they are forced to sign the dotted line on Harold's confidentiality agreement.
As the home of the original hand-forged grill, Oscar Weber Bilby felt the original stand should remain in the family and only the family forever and ever, Amen. While the secret to the recipe for root beer will remain undiscovered (as it has for the past 76 years), Harold, Rick and Mickey thought Grandpa Weber might not mind if just a few other folks were brought into the fold.
The original stand, now operated by Rick Bilby and his wife, Jennifer, will multiply to dozens of locations within the next several years, Mickey said.
The move to franchise the restaurant is the making for what Harold and Mickey called "the most unique franchise offered in the U.S." The Bilby clan claims the chain will bring 500 jobs to the state and will create a core of Master Root Beer Brewers, who will produce their own root beer on-site at the franchise locations using not the original recipe but rather a concentrate provided by the Bilby family from the original Weber's location.
"We've always kept things closely held here in Oklahoma," Mickey said. "Grandpa Weber had a lot of people who wanted him to expand, even as far out as Atlanta (the home of another familiar, closely protected, soft drink). He just wasn't interested.
"The reason we have decided to expand and franchise Weber's is because we were recruited by two major franchise companies. They wanted to take our brand and market it to all corners of the U.S., even internationally. That sounded great, but to us, it's very important to control the quality of a 76-year-old business.
"We were really close to signing a deal, but we decided it was best to start off on our own right here in Tulsa.
"Since we made the announcement that we're franchising a few weeks ago, I've talked to people who are very serious about opening Weber's locations in Nashville and one in San Antonio. What we're really interested in are some locations in and around Tulsa--Sapulpa, Owasso, Broken Arrow and Jenks.
"We believe Oklahoma itself would support 40-50 Weber's restaurants," Mickey said.
The Bilbys brag that the low overhead it takes to run a Weber's, touting a start-up cost is "a third of what it costs to get into all these other franchises," Mickey said, is the key. "We have a unique product. We're not like all the mediocre sandwich and wrap places out there."
The move to expand isn't quite as original as the recipe for Weber's burgers and root beer. Two southerly locations, one at 71st and Sheridan and another north of 71s`t and Lewis, offered Tulsans sips of the sweet stuff until the death of Mike Bilby, the middle of the three Bilby brothers who would have been 51.
When Mike died, the Weber's stores out south were shuttered. Mickey was in line to take the Sheridan location as he continued to operate the Lewis store, but being in the throes of a divorce and with the sudden loss of his brother, he opted to focus on his insurance sales business for the time, he said.
Other family issues caused the Bilbys to regroup at the original location to reconsider how they would take the Weber's concept beyond Brookside.
"We want to expand Weber's," Mickey said, "but we're not interested in going coast-to-coast in the next 90 days."
"We are anxiously excited. We've had people interested who, honestly, wouldn't be a fit. They didn't have enough dirt under their fingernails, not enough calluses on their hands. Not that we wouldn't be interested in signing investors who want to come in and hire the right managers to run the restaurant."
After interviewing these guys over an extended lunch hour, this reporter actually believes them.
Mickey hasn't seen any response from his Tulsa burger peers like Claud's, Brownies and Hank's on his family's decision to franchise the family beef-and-buns stand, he said -- not that what anyone else thinks matters, anyway, as long as the Bilbys are convinced that they offer the holy grail of hamburgers.
"I remember something Grandpa Weber said to me when I was little," Harold said. "That Weber's Superior Root Beer was too good to serve to anyone outside of Oklahoma. 'Let them come to Oklahoma and try it,'" he said.
"I hope Grandpa doesn't start visiting me in my dreams once we go out of Oklahoma," Mickey said.
Share this article: