Customers flip for Pete’s burgers for 110 years

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Pete’s Hamburger Stand is observing 110 years in business in 2019. Pictured are the third-generation owners (from left) Colleen and Paul Gokey and Mary and Bill Huser. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Pete E. Gokey, founder.

The first Pete’s onion peeler was a true hands-on job. Pete Gokey is pictured slicing some for his hamburgers. Today, the onions are peeled, sliced with an electric slicer and then ground into a fine half-moon shape, before dumped on the grill.

By Correne Martin

Pete’s Hamburger Stand was an adventure of humble beginnings. Still in Prairie du Chien, 110 years later, the same flavorful burger—with or without onions, on a fluffy, home-baked bun—is sold from a modest food stand in the heart of the community.

Pete Gokey was a painter by trade. He was also a volunteer fireman who was asked to grill hamburgers for the crowds that occasionally gathered at fire department events. They armed him with a kerosene stove and a couple huge, cast-iron skillets, and he delivered. 

As people were coming at different times, Pete noticed he could cook the meat in water to keep every single hamburger as juicy and tender as the one before it. 

For the food committee cook, it was that one simple idea that resulted in a second income and, eventually, a successful personal food business.

Upon invitation from Foley’s Tavern, Pete set up downtown at the southeast corner of what’s currently Blackhawk and Beaumont. Parked alongside the tavern, he cooked hamburgers on Saturdays and holidays. After seeing success with his specialty, Pete started frying the beef from a hand-built box stand he transported around in the back of his pickup truck. 

“He’d move to different functions, like ball games, fairs, street carnivals and auctions,” told grandson Paul Gokey, while reminiscing this week about the family business and its longevity. 

In 1942, Pete designed a trailer, in which he had the refrigerated storage and running water needed for his portable stand to become a more permanent fast-food business. This established the Pete’s Hamburgers name as an important part of the Prairie du Chien community. 

By 1955, he had a new trailer and, at the invitation of Frank Stark, moved the business down the street to where it sits today among the grounds of Stark’s Sport Shop & Liquor Store (which is celebrating 75 years in business in 2019).

Pete died in 1971. His son, Robert, then took over. When he passed in 1975, at the age of 57, his wife, Phyllis, assumed operation of the stand with the help of current manager Jill Bunders.

The third generation of Gokeys also began working at the stand, as kids, peeling and slicing onions for the family business. That includes Robert’s 10 children, particularly the current owners: Paul and wife, Colleen, as well as Mary (Gokey) Huser and husband, Bill—who still work several shifts a weekend these days. 

Of that generation, brother Jim Gokey tried to expand the brand, opening Pete’s Prairie North in La Crosse. He operated it for a number of years but sold it in 2000, and it closed a few years later.

The fourth generation also got involved in their childhood, prepping onions, and grilling and serving burgers at the stand. Cousins, nieces and nephews, spouses and friends have helped carry on the Gokey name too.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Mary said.

Pete’s famous hamburgers have always been cooked in water, to keep them from drying out. Otherwise, part of the secret is that “each pan gets better and better,” Bill divulged. “It builds up a brine overtime.”

“There’s no grease to take off,” Paul added, “since it’s just water, and the beef is [90 percent lean].”

The hamburgers start out as fresh, seasoned ground beef (from Mississippi Meats this season), mounded into balls that are set on a piping hot, iron grill pan. Up to 65 burgers at a time will fit on the cooking surface, according to Bill. A couple big pitchers of water are poured overtop and several handfuls of ground onions are mixed in. Then, they are individually smashed by a spatula into patties and simmered for 12-15 minutes-—rarely flipped—before they are served on a soft bun (baked at Huckleberry’s Restaurant). 

“The baker’s recipe for Pete’s bun has been passed down through all the generations,” Mary said. 

“They’re served ‘with or without,’ and we can add ketchup, mild horseradish mustard, yellow mustard, salt and pepper,” in a made-to-order fashion, she continued.

Other condiments, such as pickles and the ever-requested cheese, are not available at this mom-and-pop stand. They do have a few mayonnaise packets on hand for those who ask.

“We get asked for cheese all the time,” agreed the four owners. 

“If we added cheese, just look at the storage we’d need, and it would be messy on the pan,” Mary explained. 

“Some people bring their own pickles or cheese,” Colleen said, noting others are welcome to do the same.

To top off the deliciousness, the food stand sells potato chips, pop and water to enjoy. They also sell T-shirts and caps with the iconic Pete’s Hamburgers logo that customers can buy and share along their travels.

Like it was in 1909, Pete’s Hamburger Stand remains a pretty plain, small space. The current stand has modern stainless steel inside, an air-conditioner to combat the hottest days, and the recognizable green and white striped awning along the front and side of the exterior. 

The hot spot is open 26 weekends a year, from the end of April through the third week of October. Hours are Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., as well as Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

“We all work on Memorial Day, for free, in memory of our dad, mom and brother,” Mary noted. 

All the profits benefit charities that help local cancer patients and people with disabilities, specified Colleen. 

“This will be our 44th year of working Memorial Day. Our dad started it,” Paul stated proudly. “I think we’re approaching the $100,000 mark in donations back to the community.”

Pete’s Hamburger Stand employs about 14 people, including family. The best part of working the stand, according to Colleen, is the people they meet from all over the world, especially the return customers. It’s a tourist destination. 

Mary is also proud of the tradition that her grandfather’s mouthwatering burger recipe has established in Prairie du Chien. 

“People come and stand in line and visit. A lot of them share when they first had a Pete’s burger, and why they have to keep coming back,” she said. “We hear really interesting stories.”

This season, Paul said, they’ve already heard from a group of 20 coming from Alaska in June.

Word of mouth and social media have been irreplaceable promotional avenues for Pete’s over the years. But it’s the exposure on national television shows and in books, newspapers and magazines that has taken the wide-spread recognition for the brand to a whole new level. 

Mary said, grandpa Pete would be amazed at how his little idea has become such an acclaimed enterprise. 

Eager customers stand in line for an hour or more, just for the taste of his coveted, savory hamburger boiled in water and onions. Some order one or two, and others take 30. Tourists stop no matter the length of the stand’s two lines, which sometimes fill the block. The locals know when to stop for the shortest lines. 

Foodies have even tried to emulate the famous burger. Every year, they get a half-dozen letters from interested entrepreneurs looking to franchise the  stand or the product. Paul said they’ve tried; they’ve shown many the ropes. But they haven’t come up with the right formula to do so. 

Until then, there’s only one Pete’s Hamburger Stand. It’s in downtown Prairie du Chien, where people sit on street benches or in their cars—some even stand—to enjoy none other than a Pete’s hamburger.

 

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Pete’s Hamburger Catering available in Madison

By Correne Martin

In June and July 2018, Patrick Gokey took the family burger’s world-famous reputation to Madison when he opened Pete’s Hamburger Catering. The mobile business grills the same heavenly beef patties in a commercial kitchen on the east side of Madison, and then delivers them to its customers across the city. 

“I started peeling onions when I was 10,” said the great-grandson of founder Pete Gokey. “I’d always wanted to own my own business and I’ve run into lots of people who’ve had a Pete’s burger.”

He started this business entity under the brand name of Pete’s. As Paul and Colleen’s son, Patrick’s venture is supported by the owners of the hamburger stand.

“I have to live up to the standards, with the same, all-natural ingredients,” he said. “It took us four or five runs until we created a bun recipe to our satisfaction.”

Having cooked in the Prairie du Chien hamburger stand for years, and also having worked in other fast-food restaurants, Patrick took on the catering business in his spare time. He also works full-time in Madison for Dependable Solutions, a Prairie du Chien-based business.

“The hope is to eventually make [Pete’s Hamburger Catering] full-time. But I want to take it slow and do it right,” Patrick stated. 

Since Madison’s food truck laws are quite stringent, Patrick decided to partner with Christine’s Kitchen on East Washington Street. There, he cooks the hamburgers, of the famous family recipe, at a minimum of 75 per order, on up to about 300. As expected, they’re served “with or without” too.

“I’ve mainly catered companies. I’ve done a law office, a construction firm, a community chef spotlight at UW-Health,” Patrick said. “We were really busy last summer. The winter was slower than I wanted, but business is picking up again now that spring is here.”

The fourth-generation Gokey has also partnered with Slide Food Cart and Catering, in Madison, to offer side dishes alongside his hamburgers. 

“I’m looking forward to doing more community events this year to get the word out,” Patrick said. 

So, the next time you’re in Madison and you smell that familiar tantalizing aroma, know that Pete’s Hamburgers could be on someone’s plate nearby.*****

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