The Burger Day Festival is a tribute to the fried onion hamburger, cooked daily in El Reno since the early 1900’s. In Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story, author John T. Edge describes the history of El Reno’s fried onion hamburger. Edge tells of Ross Davis who owned and operated the Hamburger Inn on Route 66 in Downtown El Reno. Davis began making fried onion hamburgers in the twenties during the depression. Since onions were cheap and meat was expensive, Davis would add a half shredded onion atop a five cent meat patty and smash the burger with the back of his spatula. It made the burger look bigger, while adding a tremendous amount of flavor.
John T. Edge explains how a local businessman and his idea became what is El Reno’s local delicacy, “Like other iconic American dishes, the taste for burgers laced with onions was wrought during days of privation. Eventually, acquired taste spurred localized tradition.”
In 1988, the El Reno Main Street program was established to promote downtown revitalization. Part of any revitalization program is defining what your community is known for, what makes it special and unique. What your community offers that no other community can offer. The first Main Street Director, Carolyn Howard, met with downtown business owners and citizens to ask them, “What is El Reno known for”? The response was unanimous, “Fried Onion Hamburgers.”
It was decided that this Fried Onion Burger Day Festival would revolve around the cooking of the World’s Largest Fried Onion Hamburger. Canadian Valley Technology Center was contacted to design and construct the equipment needed to cook this monstrous delicacy. The technology center created two major apparatuses, a twelve foot convection oven and a ten foot circular grill that could grill, rise, flip and lower a hamburger patty. The hard part was done. An invitation was given to all boys who had ever worked for one of the fried onion burger diners. The invitation was to receive a free burger day t-shirt in exchange for helping to cook the big hamburger. The event was developed and to be run by volunteer labor.
The local fried onion hamburger diners donated meat and onions and the other necessities for cooking the World’s largest fried onion hamburger. When Burger Day began, there was Sid’s Diner, Johnnies Grill, and Robert’s Grill, all of which are still in operation today serving up their specialty fried onion delicacies. Sid’s Diner agreed to set up a grill in downtown to cook and serve hamburgers for the first Burger Day. A local car club arranged for a Car Show downtown, and the first Burger Day was born, May 7, 1989.
The organizers were not fully prepared to manage their creation. There was a line of people two city blocks long all wanting a fried onion hamburger cooked in the middle of downtown El Reno. Sid Hall, then the owner of Sid’s
Diner, had brought 200 hamburgers to cook, and within an hour Sid had to go get more meat and supplies to keep up with the increasing burger line. Festival organizers were amazed at what was happening. Sid ran errands all
day getting hamburger meat, all the while wondering why people just didn’t go to one of the diners to get burgers other than waiting in line. When Sid drove past Robert’s and Johnnie’s Grill, he understood why: both places were packed with hungry customers! EVERYONE wanted to experience the ecstasy that only El Reno’s fried onion hamburgers could offer.
Around three in the afternoon after waiting in line for a burger, David Eaton, local businessman and experienced grillmaster, asked Marty Hall, the current owner of Sid’s, if he was getting tired of grilling. David began helping his childhood friend meet the needs of these hungry festival goers. They were having fun conversing with festival goers who wanted to honor their heritage by celebrating Burger Day with their favorite local treat.
Five in the afternoon marked the close of the first Fried Onion Burger Day Festival. The weather had been wonderful and 1,300 hamburgers had been sold. Around 8,000 people had shown up for fried onion hamburgers
and the festivities. Now after 20 plus years, Burger Day plays host to over 25,000 people, some traveling from around the world to attend.
Do they eat the 750# burger they make???????
Yes, it’s divided up and handed out to the crowd for free!
I’ve attended twice, and it’s FUN!! And the burgers are awesome!! Definitely going back this year. Jerald, it is the first Saturday in May (May 1st this year). Unless something has changed! 😀
The Fried Onion Burger is an icon of your community and a great meal. I am glad I had such a great experience. I had my burger at Sid’s.
I am fortunate to know Carolyn Howard, I work with her at the Beaumont Texas Main Street, and I am so glad that this is such a successful event! Keep up the main-streeting (as Carolyn would call it).
Reagan C. Rothenberger – Beaumont, Texas