It's hard to crown a "best burger" in Wisconsin without having tried, well, way more than I have.
Even so, I can say with confidence that Wedl's Hamburger Stand belongs on any Wisconsin's best burgers list.
The small, nearly 100-year-old burger stand in Jefferson serves up fresh-grilled burgers, slider-style. Not those mini "sliders" you find at sports bars. True sliders — thin, 1/8-pound fresh-ground patties, grilled up in a river of grease and topped with soft-sweet grilled onions and yellow American cheese.
But the burgers, as good as they are, are not the only thing that makes Wedl's great. A Jefferson landmark on the corner of Racine and Center streets, the small red-and-white, 8-by-8-foot shack is a mom-and-pop shop in a mom-and-pop kind of town. A town where the historic buildings along Main Street are proudly preserved as an ode to the past. A town where "& Sons" still features prominently on small-business signs. It all combines for a nostalgic feel that seems oh-so-right paired with that all-American summer staple: burgers.
The building that now houses the ice cream parlor adjacent to Wedl's has seen many incarnations over its nearly century-long run. According to the Daily Jefferson County Union, the building started as a hat store, with William August Bergholz opening a hamburger stand outside around 1919. The business changed hands a number of times over the ensuing decades, becoming a grocery store, office space and eventually the current ice cream parlor in 1974.
But the shack outside was always a hamburger stand, regardless of the name — Becker's, Armstrong's, Wedl's.
The business faced its greatest test in 1999, when an 80-year-old driver plowed through the shack, destroying it but thankfully not seriously injuring the two teenage employees inside. The owner at the time, Rick Armstrong, told the local paper he wasn't sure if he'd rebuild.
Luckily for burger lovers everywhere, Armstrong, who had owned the stand since 1974, rebuilt. A few years later, the Wedl family bought the business.
Robby Wedl, 27, now serves as manager. Jefferson born and raised, he had worked at the shack since he was 15. Seven years ago, he persuaded his parents to buy the business, just as his dad was getting ready to retire.
But even as the stand has changed hands and names over the years, the burgers haven't.
"We said when we bought it we paid more for the recipe than for the business," Wedl said. "That and the grill."
The century-old, seasoned cast-iron grill was one of the only things that survived the car crash. Today, Wedl runs the metal workhorse, smashing golf-ball-size ground beef balls into thin, juicy patties, grilled in lard grease until the edges are crispy.
The meat comes from River's Edge Meat Market in Jefferson, owned by Wedl's uncle, who passed away in October. Wedl's aunt and her daughters still run the market, and Wedl's father grinds the meat by hand every morning.
The burgers are unlike any I've ever tasted, with a distinct pepper flavor that's part of that secret recipe. The flavor pairs perfectly with the sweet onions, and everything is held together by a melted slice of American cheese. Plus you can't beat the price: $2.15 for a single cheeseburger.
Wedl says that's his favorite order — a simple cheeseburger with onions. The double — two patties — is a customer favorite. Wedl estimates the stand goes through about 15,000 pounds of beef, or more than 100,000 burgers, in a summer.
Those burgers draw national attention and visitors from all over the country. A framed picture of a visit from George Motz from the Travel Channel's "Burger Land" hangs on a wall in the ice cream parlor, near a map of the United States littered with pins showing the hometowns of visitors. Wedl said there's a guy who rides his motorcycle up from Chicago just for a burger.
That's part of what Wedl loves about the stand, even if it sometimes means working seven days a week over a hot grill during a hot Wisconsin summer.
"I love doing it. I like meeting people and finding out their stories. It's enjoyable," he said.
Regulars are a staple of the business, too. Lines on a nice summer weekend can stretch around the block, Wedl said.
"People come in and sometimes I'll have their orders up and ready before they walk up because they get the same thing every time," Wedl said.
The stand also serves up Chocolate Shoppe ice cream in the small adjacent building. Weld estimates the shop goes through 700 gallons of ice cream each season.
As for the future, Wedl just hopes to continue serving the same great burgers at his literal "mom-and-pop" shop.
"We've survived a Great Depression. We've survived a car hitting us. We've survived the flood of 2008," he said. "We'll try for another 100 years."
While you're there: Catch a double feature at the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre at the corner of Highways 18 and 89 in Jefferson. A $9 ticket gets you admission to two movies, which begin at dusk. See highway18.com or call (920) 674-6700 for upcoming features.
Work off that burger with a ride along the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, which stretches for 52 miles from Waukesha to Cottage Grove and passes just north of downtown Jefferson. Note that cyclists 16 and older need a state trail pass to ride this route. See dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/glacialdrumlin or call (920) 648-8774.
Getting there: Wedl's is at 200 E. Racine St. in Jefferson, about one hour west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 26.
More information: For a menu and more information, see Wedl's Facebook page or call (920) 674-3637.
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