A Tasty Part of Flint History
Column for May 21, 2004
A deliciously different culinary aspect of Flint history which continues to this day began in 1929. That was when a two-story Mediterranean style building with stuccoed walls, arched windows and a tiled roof was built by the Vernor’s Ginger Ale Company. It’s located downtown at 800 S. Saginaw Street and was their retail store and sandwich shop serving the bubbly beverage whose "deliciously different" flavor is aged four years in oak barrels. A notable feature was an electric sign which depicted in light bulbs a bottle of Vernor’s Ginger Ale being poured into a glass. There was also a warehouse on the site where many oak barrels filled with Vernor’s Ginger Ale syrup were stored waiting for the flavor to mellow. Barrels were even stored in underground tunnels between the warehouse and the sandwich shop. One customer who recalls going there was Charles Weinstein who as a child bought Vernor’s Ginger Ale for his father, Morris Weinstein, who didn’t want to be seen patronizing the rival business as he co-owned the M&S Beverage Company. In 1932, sign painters John Gonsowski and Keith Martin, working for General Signs, painted a three-story advertising mural for Vernor’s on the north wall of the Sharp Hardware & Implement Company building next door, later known as the Peerless Mattress & Furniture Company building, which faces the Vernor’s sandwich shop. Mr. Gonsowski was born in Poland and came to Michigan in 1913. He showed his European sensitivities in regard to his painting style. He painted smiling Vernor’s gnomes working out of a castle, stacking oak barrels which say "flavor mellowed 4 years in wood" on the mural. Gonsowski painted other Vernor’s advertising signs throughout the Flint area. In 1951, Vernor’s moved the oak barrels from the site and James Vernor II sold the sandwich shop to Bill Thomas, the manager of Kewpee Hamburgs, a downtown Flint fixture since 1923. Vernor’s took down the pouring bottle sign and Bill Thomas erected a neon Kewpee sign with the kewpee doll logo.

The Kewpee Hotel (the "Hotel" would later be dropped to avoid confusion from customers who thought the business offered lodging instead of hamburgers) was founded by Samuel V. Blair who was nicknamed "Old Man Kewpee" or "The Hamburger King." He was a colorful man who claimed that he originated the flat bun and invented the ‘deluxe’ hamburger. Before arriving in Flint in 1923, he had been an iron molder for 30 years, sold vacuum cleaners and life insurance, studied horticulture and operated orchards. He opened the first Kewpee Hotel at 415 Harrison Street in a wagon-like building. Legend has it that it was buried on the site when it was replaced by a real building which had numerous renovations over the years and was torn down in 1979. For Kewpee Hotel’s 20th Anniversary in 1943, he gave that day’s customers war savings stamps.

William V. "Bill" Thomas came to Flint in 1933 and started working for Blair in 1938. On April 1, 1944, 60 years ago, Thomas took over management of the Harrison Street restaurant, leasing the restaurant from Blair who retired. Characteristically, Blair threw a big retirement party for himself inviting several friends. Blair died in 1945. The two downtown Flint Kewpees were not the only ones. Why the Kewpee restaurants were called Hotels are lost to history. At its peak, there were more than 200 Kewpee restaurants before World War II. The early Kewpees were not franchises and there was no group association. Each differently-owned Kewpee had its own menu with their own different style of hamburger. Bill Thomas took full ownership of the Flint Kewpee Hamburgs in 1958, but he couldn’t afford the ownership rights to the Kewpee name which Blair sold to Ed Adams of Toledo. In the early 1960s, Adams wanted to switch from a flat royalty fee to a full franchising arrangement. In 1967 Adams demanded a percentage of the profits from each Kewpee in place of the licensing fees without providing additional support. Because Bill Thomas did his own advertising and promotion for his Kewpee restaurants, he decided to change the name. So on May 12, 1967, the Flint Kewpee restaurants were renamed Bill Thomas’ Halo Burger restaurants. Only the name changed. Everything else including the food remained the same. Bill Thomas died on Christmas Eve of 1973. Today, Bill’s son Terry Thomas presides over a chain of 10 Halo Burger restaurants and take-out stations throughout the Flint area. Halo Burger also manages the University of Michigan–Flint’s Campus Café.

After Vernor’s sold the sandwich shop to Bill Thomas, the maintenance of the Vernor’s mural next door had stopped. Over the years it started to become faded. Bill Thomas wanted to fix it up, but the owner of Peerless Mattress resisted having the mural maintained. It wasn’t until the Greater Flint Arts Council’s Urban Walls Committee, which commissioned murals in downtown Flint, stepped in wanting to restore the Vernor’s mural that Peerless Mattress finally agreed. Halo Burger donated $27,000 for the restoration of the mural in 1979 which included two additions to the mural in place of blank wall space. The restoration and addition were done by Donna Devantier and Michael Perry of Eller Outdoor Advertising. Original artist John Gonsowski was on hand during the restoration. On the large mural addition to the right of the original mural, a small extension to the castle, an open field and houses in the background were added. As a tribute to Halo Burger, a cow with a halo over its head was painted on the large mural addition. Halo Burger’s mascot is an angelic cow. After the mural was completed, the mural was coated with a sealant to protect it. When Vernor’s built the sandwich shop, they included a small building or a "guard house" and gates for the delivery trucks to go through. The small building was at one time Pete’s Diner run by Peter Parascos. Through the years it also housed May’s Lunch, Tom’s Lunch and Thomas’ Pantry Shoppe. It finally became storage before it was torn down to aid in the mural restoration and provide additional parking for Halo Burger. The small mural addition which occupies where the small building stood features a painted guard house for the castle with a winking gnome looking through the window.

In 1995, the Peerless Mattress building was gutted in an arson fire which forced Peerless to move to the suburbs. The Vernor’s mural was undamaged from the fire, but the building was mural was painted on was threatened. Fund-raising to buy the building and fix it up was successful, saving it from demolition, and the Greater Flint Arts Council moved into the former Peerless Mattress building. In 2001, the mural received a second restoration. Steve Davidek and Stephen Heddy (both of whom also worked on a mural restoration in the Genesee County Court House) worked on the second restoration of the Vernor’s mural which was funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation. The owner of Vernors in 1979 did not help the first restoration. But for the second restoration, Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., which took over Vernors in 1994, contributed funds to help in the second restoration.

Over the years, the Halo Burger location which was formerly Vernor’s and Kewpee had additions built which are faithful to the building’s original design. The Flint Kewpee locations pioneered drive-thru take out windows. When the original Kewpee/Halo Burger was torn down in 1979 to make room for parking for the new University of Michigan–Flint downtown campus, the staff moved to a new Halo Burger location on Court Street near Center Road serving Flint’s east side. There are only six Kewpee locations left–two Michigan locations both in Lansing, one in Racine, Wisconsin and three at Kewpee’s current home base of Lima, Ohio. Halo Burger has a web site under construction at http://www.haloburger.com which will be impressive when it’s finished. The Racine, Wisconsin Kewpee has a web site at http://www.kewpee.com The Vernor’s story is told at http://www.pww.on.ca/vernors.htm Vernors lost the apostrophe in its name when the company went public following the death of James Vernor III in 1957 at age 39 because the company needed additional capital. The Vernor family reluctantly sold the ginger ale company in 1966 because of estate tax problems dating back to the death of James Vernor II in 1954. Other relevant links include the official Greater Flint Arts Council web site at www.gfn.org/gfac/ and a web page devoted to the renovation of the GFAC building at http://www.roweincorp.com/focusweb/GFAC/GFAC_project_specifics.htm which, despite what it says, was never occupied by Vernor’s even though the mural was painted on its north wall.

Whenever you go to Halo Burger, don’t forget to order a Boston Cooler made with Vernors and vanilla ice cream. Yum! Halo Burger was recently voted Michigan’s #1 hamburger. So whenever you visit the Flint area, stop and eat at Halo Burger. The old Kewpee slogan is "Hamburg, pickle on top! Makes your heart go flippity flop!" Halo Burger’s slogan is "Seven days without a Halo Burger makes one weak". This column could not have been completed without the assistance of the following people whom I give many thanks to: Randy Farb of the Flint Public Library, Greg Fiedler of the Greater Flint Arts Council, Terry Thomas at Bill Thomas’ Halo Burger and Karen Kassel who is the great-granddaughter of original Vernor’s mural painter John Gonsowski.