For me, the geographical definition of the “south” has nothing much to do with the Mason Dixon line. It has quite a bit to do with the availability of certain key items including (but not necessarily limited to) various kinds of music and assorted food products.
One of those food products is Krystal hamburgers. Don’t get me wrong, I will slam on the brakes at promising hand lettered signs for barbecue (with extra points for misspellings), diners that take some studying in order to know whether they are open or have been closed for several years, and the funky looking meat-and-three. I go for the local joint almost any day of the week over a chain. If you don’t believe me, ask my kids, who suffered at being denied Chuck E. Cheese for Jimmy’s Grill. But of the chains, I have my favorites, which tend to be on the fringes. And Krystal is one of those.
If you haven’t spent time in the south, you may not even know of what I speak. Krystal, born in Chattanooga, TN and moved to Atlanta in a fit of big city envy, only operates in the south, with very few exceptions. The bedrock upon which the chain was founded is the small, square hamburger, featuring a “meat” patty roughly the thickness of a sheet of good notebook paper — with steamed onions.
The presence of a Krystal is an is almost a perfect way to test whether you are in the south or not. The sole problem I had to solve in my Krystal = The South formula is delivered by Virginia. I am currently a resident of Northern Virginia, which is most definitely not the south. Many learned sorts and professors consider the lower part of the state of Virginia, to be part of the south. Who am I to argue? There is one Krystal restaurant in Bristol, VA/TN, a border town that straddles the two states. So, because Virginia has one Krystal hamburger joint in Bristol. it remains part of the South. Close call, Virginia,
Is it a Small, Strange Square Hamburger, Or is it A Slider?
I have a theory that “sliders” were invented by a Slick Restaurant Dude who owned a trendy bar. The guy needed some food to sell, and figured that rather than starting a kitchen and all that nonsense, he would send a kid out for Krystal burgers. Slick Restaurant Dude would then charge $20 for four, calling them the Slider Quartet. The slider was born.
I don’t like the idea of calling Krystal burgers “sliders.” To me, they are small, square, hamburgers with steamed onions.
I was once at a very fancy party in Las Vegas at a new hotel showing off its stuff to people who had the potential to bring in business. I was allegedly one of those people. The party featured some very elaborate appetizers, many of them involving snails, kale, and other stuff you can find on or as part of suburban lawns.
I made a beeline for a giant mountain of small burgers — or sliders — in a dark corner of the room. As I was munching away, I remarked to the fellow next to me that the mini burgers were almost as good as Krystal Hamburgers. The fellow turned out to be from the hotel. He informed me that these were Sliders (his voice supplying the capitalization) that were made from Kobe beef that had been flown in specially from Japan. I laughed and muttered that I needed to “get with Johanssen on this trade deficit thing” and wandered off.
The point is this. I meant what I said to the guy. (Not the part about the trade deficit.) His Kobe sliders were almost as good as a Krystal hamburger. Almost. Sorry buddy. Just almost. And, let’s face it. Whatever sort of meat is in/on a Krystal Hamburger, it is not Kobe Beef. I don’t know what the composition of a Krystal hamburger patty is. And frankly, I don’t want to know. Some questions are better left unasked.
No mater what is in the wafer-thin patty, it’s pointless to attempt to separate that patty mojo from the mojo supplied by the bun, the steamed onions, the pickle, etc., cheese optional. The combination of these elements is where the magic occurs. I’m sure many scientific minds have measured and considered the bun to patty ratio, the the steamed onion infusion rate, pickle placement, etc. I’m not going there. Whatever they are doing, it works.
Pretense is Dispensed With; 39 Krystal Burgers in Two Minutes
You don’t get the impression that the folks at Krystal are trying to convince anyone, through clever posters and charts, that eating an entire sack of their mini hamburgers is going to be a super healthy thing to do. When you walk into a Krystal, you are not greeted by giant color sign for their new salad. It is almost as if a friendly voice is announcing over an imaginary loudspeaker: “Heck folks, we’re not even sure what’s in these things since Handelman retired. But whatever it is, we’re pretty sure it’s not that great for you. Come on in anyway and buy a sack or two of burgers, and try one of our new deep fried bologna sandwiches while you’re at it. You only go around once.”
In fact, from 2004 to 2009, the company sponsored the “Krystal Square Off,” which was designated as the official World Hamburger Eating Championship by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. It was quite involved, consisting of a qualifying tour where regular old Krystal munching amateurs could square off against professional eaters (which I honestly didn’t even know was a thing) to earn a spot competing in the world championship burger fest in Chattanooga, TN. In a qualifying round, “Humble” Bob Shroud downed 39 Krystals in two minutes. Now to be fair, the pickles were removed so as not to present a choking hazard. But still, pretty impressive. And Bob’s record apparently stands even today.
Eventually, muttering something about significant demands on corporate resources and a shift in “marketing focus and efforts” away from seeing who could shove the most Krystals in their face in two minutes, Krystal canceled the big eat off. But the vibe lives on.
If you need a salad, there’s always the produce section of the Food Lion down the road. Or that health food place behind the adult book store. But right now, you are at Krystal. Relax and have yourself a whole pile of miniature burgers.
I like that sort of honesty in a dining establishment. For example, when I go into a smoothie joint and the guy says: “This tastes like lawn clippings mixed with vinegar and molasses, with just a hint of rotten egg — horrible, in other words. But it is really good for you.” I like that. It’s honest. Me: “Ok man. Thanks for your honesty. “Let me have one before I head to lunch at that Krystal across town by the Interstate.”
The Covert Krystal-Lover
Next to the Interstate is where my favorite Krystal restaurants live. By the Interstate on the outskirts of a town. Hit one of those locations and you get a mix of travelers and folks who live nearby.
I particularly enjoy seeing the guilty patrons, who typically flock during the late afternoon or early evening. They come in with a big coat on over their yoga duds or spandex cycling suit. There is no eye contact. They want me to believe that they are ordering for their kids, their boyfriend, their ex-husband, etc. But I know better. That bag will be ripped open before their wheels clear the parking lot. And they can leave that smoothie cup and fat free muffin wrapper in the passenger seat as a deception, but the smell of those steamed onions is going to be lingering in the Lexus for a long time. . .
I’m Gonna Wait ‘Till the Midnight Hour
Besides the fact that the burgers are tasty, cheap, fast, and filling, Krystal restaurants are open all night. That makes it easy to develop a special relationship with the place. Krystal and I go back a long way. There was and is a Krystal just blocks away from Huntsville High School in my Alabama hometown. At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, there was a Krystal sitting in perhaps the prime center location on the campus side of Cumberland Avenue, “The Strip,” where all the bars are. Celebrations, break ups, epic conquests, and dismal failures were all topped off with Krystal hamburgers and infused with fine perfume of steamed onions.
I worked briefly as a reporting intern at the “Knoxville News Sentinel.” This was in ancient times, before cell phones. Reporters and photographers could check out two-way radios so we could keep in touch with the city desk. This felt very official and important. I was inducted into a secret fraternity when the police beat reporter told me that if someone called a “Code K” over the radio, it meant that a Krystal run was taking place. The purpose of the code was to keep the editors from catching on to the fact that instead of chasing down the new elephant birth at the Knoxville Zoo, the reporter or photographer was, in fact, going to Krystal. I wanted enquire whether my pal thought that maybe the editors might have “cracked” the code seeing as a big hairy photographer who looked strangely like Dog the Bounty Hunter always appeared with several bags of steaming Krystal Hamburgers shortly after the “Code K” signal was broadcast over the two-way radio. But since I was the new guy, I decided it was better not to rock the boat by asking. And it seemed like the system was working somehow.
Castles in the Sand
Let’s just address this next issue head on. There is another hamburger joint that sells small square hamburgers, White Castle. That chain was founded in the midwest and has restaurants mostly in the midwest and mid-Atlantic. I was somewhat shocked to find out that White Castle was there first — apparently being considered the first fast food hamburger joint in the country — and that the founders of Krystal had checked out a White Castle before getting started.
I have come to think of it this way. The Xerox company invented the computer mouse. Apple ripped them off and took things to the next level. That’s the way I feel about White Castle and Krystal. Krystal took the germ of an idea for the small, square burger with a wafer-thin meat patty and steamed onions and perfected it. They took it to a whole new place. To me Krystal wins hands down. And that doesn’t even get to things like their recent fried pickle innovation. . .
According to that font of knowledge, “Wikipedia,” Krystal was founded on October 24, 1932, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during the first years of the Great Depression. The founders, Rodney Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill believed that even in a severe economic upheaval, "People would patronize a restaurant that was kept spotlessly clean, where they could get a good meal with courteous service at the lowest possible price." Apparently, the restaurant's first customer, French Jenkins, ordered six "Krystals" and a cup of coffee, all for the price of 35 cents.
Long Live Krystal
That was then, and this is now. . .
But the stores still feature a long counter where you place your order and get your food. There is a place for a line to snake back and forth in front of the counter, They still seem to deliver the food with remarkable speed — particularly the basic Krystal and Krystal Cheese. I am certain they have made some spiffy upgrades in their decor over the years, but whatever they are, they are lost on me. A Krystal still looks like a Krystal.
The menu has been expanded to include some other items. I was recently pleased to stop at a Krystal and be greeted by a giant sign advertising fried pickles. Also a new fried pickle Krystal hamburger. Exciting breakthroughs.
I got the five for $5 special, which let me pick five items from among the basic burgers and some other stuff, like a corn dog. I had a couple of the new fried pickle Krystals, one with cheese, one without, and a corndog, all for my sawbuck. I added a side of fried pickles and a drink. A meal fit for a king.
So whoever owns the joint now — some holding company or another, I think — they have not screwed the thing up too badly. The food is good, the service is fast, and the place is always more interesting than your run of the mill fast food joint.
Long live Krystal. On the one hand, I wish they would expand outside the south. But I have a feeling that might screw things up. So just keep turning out those little square burgers with wafter thin meat patties and steamed onions in locations scattered throughout the Krystal-containing states.