Free Markets, Free People

Down memory lane–there’s nothing more American than the good old cheeseburger

Call this just a weird coincidence, but I happened upon an article in the Houston Chronicle that listed the best 10 burger joints in the US.  And coming in at 10 was “Feltner’s Whatta-burger” in Russellville, Ark.  I followed it to a local link.

I went to school there (Arkansas Tech University) and I worked for Bob Feltner in what was then known only as “The Whatta-burger” (methinks somewhere later on there must have been some sort of legal thing with big burger chain named Whattaburger that caused Bob to stick his last name in front of it).

The honor of being among the best 10 doesn’t surprise me, nor could it go to a more deserving person/family.  Here’s the story:

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger in Russellville rounded out the Houston Chronicle’s top ten list of legendary burger joints this year.

"Well, it doesn’t surprise me. They do have great burgers," said Tim Macks, a customer from Fayetteville.

The restaurant opened its doors for the first time back in 1967. It started with a dream. "This used to be a dirt road out here. He sat in a lawn chair, counted cars, came home and said I’m going to open up a burger place and we thought he was crazy," said Missy Ellis, an owner.

Ellis now owns the restaurant her father started when she was just a child. She said, "To be chosen as one of the top 10, that is just unbelievable and I know he’s looking down from Heaven saying way to go."

If it is not fresh, it is not served. Food is not frozen at Whatta-Burger.

Even the pickiest eaters can find something they like and in big portions. "Our large fry is a good pound of fries, so you have to be starving to eat one of those by yourself," said Mandy Simons, general manager.

Eaters from Fayetteville, Fort Smith, and even Tulsa make their way to Russellville for a bite of the Whatta-Burger. "We always make it a point to stop here anytime we’re close," said Alan Young, of Tulsa, "We’ve been looking forward to it for two or three weeks."

A better person or a finer boss than Bob Feltner can’t be found (and I’m far from the only one who would say that).  We were a college town and he located his place right on the border of the campus.  You could walk there, and most did.  Bob supported the college and the kids who went there.  

And he hired as many as he could to work there, usually over staffing the place.   His way of helping those of us who usually didn’t have two pennies to rub against each other.  He also extended credit.  Seriously.  His system was to write it on a wooden ice cream spoon and keep the spoons in the cash drawer.  I used to work behind the counter and it wasn’t at all uncommon to hear a student say “put it on my spoon”.  I’d sort through, find  their spoon (there were a bunch) and put the amount on there. 

What was funny about it is rarely, if ever, did Bob have to collect. And when he did, he’s ask someone who was a friend of the person who owed more than he should to mention it to him.   That was it.  That was the sum of his collection effort.   What he did was appreciated and students showed up constantly to pay on or pay off their “spoon”.   I don’t think he was stiffed very often.

There was one thing Bob wouldn’t do – he wouldn’t put anything out that wasn’t fresh.  None of the hamburger was frozen – it was all fresh.  The vegies were cut up the night before (a friend used to do it and said he seemed to always smell like onions).  The fries and the like were frozen, but none of the meat.  It was the primary rule of the house – if it isn’t fresh or doesn’t look fresh it doesn’t go on a burger.  And if you weren’t sure, it didn’t go on a burger.

I could sing this man’s praises forever.  He was just a great person.  He remembered everyone’s name, greeted them like an old lost friend and made you want to come back.  The fact that his food was great was a bonus.  When I first worked there (not long after he opened) it was a walk-in or walk up place.   No seating for dining.  Strictly to go.  Over the years, Bob has added on and now it has a pretty good sized dining area. 

Of course all of this reminds me of a story where my roommate and I got caught up in a Cool Hand Luke moment and bet someone we could eat 20 regular hamburgers at Whattaburger.  I think alcohol was involved. The bet was if we did so, the other guys would pay for them but if we didn’t we had to pay for them.  Well, neither of us could afford 20 hamburgers, but we figured we could eat them. 

Over we went and Bob got into the fun of it and got the burgers ready.  Well, I’m ashamed to say, I made it through 6 or maybe 7.  I figured we were doomed.  But my roomie scarfed down his 10 and the rest of mine.   We won the bet, barely, in the time allotted.  Me?  I became a footnote in Whattaburger history, but my roomie, Denny, became “champ”.  Every time Denny went in the place, Bob would yell out, “what it’ll be, Champ?”

Loved the place, loved the man, loved the whole family.

If you are ever anywhere near Russellville, Arkansas, do yourself a favor and hunt down Feltner’s Whattaburger.  Missy Ellis, mentioned in the article, is Bob’s daughter (and worked at the Whattaburger with us).  Tell her I said “hi” and enjoy a great burger in Bob’s memory.



7 Responses to Down memory lane–there’s nothing more American than the good old cheeseburger

  • I think alcohol was involved.

    I suspect that would be the safe money there, chief.  🙂

  • I wonder…with great sadness…if the cheeseburger in many jurisdictions will be an endangered species.
    My favorite cheeseburger was made by a death camp survivor and his wife (who also had the forearm tattoo) in Hollywood, back in my hippy-freak period.
    They had a tiny classic stainless-steel diner on one of the streets to the hills from Sunset.  He would hand cut the Kaiser rolls, heap them with beef patties he made himself, add cheese and chili, grilled onions, etc.
    He poured milk from a jug.  He treated us like his errant sons.  I wish I could thank him.

    • back in my hippy-freak period

      Well, thank god you grew outta the hippie part…  🙂

  • McQ – I am from the Little Rock area (Jacksonville)and from 69-73 went to the UofA up in Fayetteville.  Every time we went home for the weekend we would stop at the Russelville Whatta-Burger – both coming and going.  I never knew the owner but I remember the place very well as did many of my friends from the UofA days who would stop, just as I did, for the great burgers and fries.  It is nice to see good people acknowledged in this way.  Maybe we should notify Guy Fieti of FoodTV’s DriveIns, Diners and Dives about the place.  Maybe they would do a feature about them.

  • I feel somehow cheated.  I’m from, in general, middle America.  Where new was good, old was bad, and even though there are a few places that have been around for ages, owners have changed hands at least once, and they were never what they once might have been.
    Closest I can come is a little Gyros place on campus in Normal IL.  Currently closed so they can relocate (former place was leased, owner tore it down to make a bigger Papa John’s he ran, the lousy f**ker), they are working to re-open before end of the semester.
    The place is run by two Lebanese brothers that are as nice as could be.  If you’re a buck short, they let you slide.  Their gyro meet was beef and lamb and seasoning, they made the sauce fresh, and their portions are VERY good sized.  Used to go there now and then when I got off work from the fake italian place I worked at, if I worked a day shift.  Sometimes they would stop in during the local dead time, and we’d chat, or if they were dead there and I was eating, we’d chat.  We’d complain about local sales taxes, random stuff.
    Seriously, The nicest guys.  Ran the place with just them, and I think their sister (or a wife, I never asked).  I look forward to them opening back up.

  • Not traveling cross-country to Arkansas anytime soon, but I see Cassell’s is right down the street from where I work …