Where A Burger Isn’t Always A Burger

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Who doesn’t love a burger and a beer? Running for a quick bite after work, going out with friends, or an impromptu gathering around a backyard grill, nothing says American like a burger and a brew. Always being the first choice on my list, I thought I had a handle on what the best burger was after my Aunt Sharlene taught me that the only way to make a good burger is to pile everything on but the kitchen sink. That was before we were driving for parts one day and stopped at the Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe in Greenville, Ohio.

Photo by Lois Hoffman

The employees were filling to-go orders as fast as they were serving customers inside. Cars were lined up for two blocks down the street, and people were lined up outside the door. I soon found out what makes this little brick building on Broadway Street so special.

The hamburger meat is always served steamed, never fried, and piled loose on the bun. Sound really messy? You bet, but worth every stain it causes. The flavor: out of this world, with a little something extra that makes it so good but a seasoning that you can’t quite put your finger on.

So unique was this place that I went back a couple of weeks later and talk to Mark Koontz, the great nephew of Louise Maher, the woman who had the vision to start the place in 1934. He explained about the loose meat. “Great Aunt Louise wanted to start a family business, and she wanted something different, so she ingeniously came up with the loose hamburger idea and her special seasoning.”

Aha! I knew there was something distinct in the taste. Mark just smiles. I knew it, the terrific taste comes from a secret recipe. He nods, “It is a dry. They have used the same supplier for all their beef since the shop began serving. It is a leaner type that is 100% pure beef, always fresh and never frozen. The other factor that sets them apart is that the employees of Maid-Rite grind all the beef in house. “Add all these factors to the fact that we steam all the burger instead of frying, makes our burgers a very healthy choice that also tastes great,” Mark explains.

Photo by Lois Hoffman

The Maid-Rite is their signature sandwich, consisting of steamed loose meat, onion, pickles and mustard served on a steamed golden brown hamburger bun. You are probably wondering where the ketchup is. You won’t find any on a Maid-Rite sandwich! Louise thought that ketchup would not be a good fit with the special seasoning.

Another unique twist is that you can’t get a burger and fries. No special reason, they just never got into serving fries, opting instead for potato chips to complement  their burgers. But they don’t usually hear any complaints about this choice, since what people can get here is a beer to go along with their burger.

If you think that the uniqueness of this little shop ends here, just take a walk outside. The outside walls are literally covered in wads of chewed gum. Yep, you read that right. Of course, I wondered why this all started. Mark laughs, “It all started on the back door of the building. Someone probably thought it was a joke, and then more added to it. Pretty soon it became a draw for the business with people stopping by to add their little bit of history to the walls. Our gum walls are part of people’s memories. Kids who are grown now and can no longer get in trouble for their mischievousness will come back and show their parents what wad of gum is theirs. We have even had lovers who have declared their love by spelling out their initials with strategically placed wads of gum.” OK, that is a little extreme!

Photo by Lois Hoffman

They used to scrape the gum off the walls by the drive thru, because the sugar in the gum would melt and attract the bees, which created a real problem. They have since given up the ghost because they can’t win; the kids just keep putting it back.

Even though this can be a nuisance, Mark thinks it is a special niche. “So many things change in this world; it is pretty neat that people know they can come back home and Maid-Rite will be just like they remember it growing up.”

It is still a family-owned business, with many family members working here over the years. Mark is a therapist for the school system as his “regular” job, but works at Maid-Rite during the summers. “I take a shift just like anyone else,” he says with a smile. “Some days I grind burgers, some days I make sandwiches or wait on customers, whatever needs doing.” They have roughly a dozen employees, with some that have been with the establishment for over 20 years, which is pretty impressive in today’s business world.

What I noticed while watching the employees is the camaraderie between them. Everyone seemed to be enjoying their job, with jokes and cheerful banter going back and forth. Mark admits, “It is a fun place to work; we treat our employees very well, and many of them start as teenagers and work right through their college years. They are so versatile that most of them can do any job in here, which makes it possible for them to get time off when they want it most of the time.”

Photo by Lois Hoffman 

Maid-Rite is as much a part of Greenville behind the scenes as it is a novelty shop on Broadway Street. Through the years, the business has supported dozens of local initiatives by generously giving donations to schools and other community events. Their advertising literally consists of word of mouth. Many locals do come back and frequent the establishment, but many passers-by on road trips are some of their repeat customers. This isn’t the run-of-the mill hamburger joint. I know. I was a road-tripper, and I got hooked.

The love affair works both ways. Maid-Rite loves the community, and the community loves Maid-Rite. The building caught fire in 1993. Steve Birt, who was the new chief of the Greenville Fire Department at the time, was quoted as saying, “Every fire company in every nearby county wanted to help. I knew if I didn’t save Maid-Rite, they would run me out of town!”

Even though the business has remained virtually unchanged for the past 84 years, there is one modern change that was inevitable. “Even when the rest of the world tends to do business with plastic, we are a cash-only establishment. So, for the sake of convenience for our customers, we installed an ATM. It just made good business sense,” Mark explained.

There have been others around the country who have tried to cash-in on Maid-Rite’s claim to fame, but they are only imposters. It is not a franchise, so if you want a real, honest-to-goodness Maid-Rite burger, you’ll just have to stop in Greenville at the one and only. I am a burger kind of girl, and I know I’ll be making a trip back real soon.

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