The other day my wife and I were talking about restaurants. Since she is from New York and I am from Chicago, we often find ourselves asking each other, “did you have a ‘such-and-such’ growing up?” I’ve always enjoyed these chats because I get to learn about places like Carvel Ice Cream and I get to tell her about Portillo’s. Anywho, we were having one of these “did you have?” chats the other day and we found ourselves talking about Fuddruckers. When she said the name “Fuddruckers” I immediately cringed and thought about my last visit to a Fuddruckers in Naperville, Illinois about 18 years ago.
To this day, I can’t remember if it was me or my friend Samantha’s idea to go to Fuddruckers (alleged home to the World’s Greatest Burger), but we found ourselves there on some random weekday. I remember we were there kinda late, but not anywhere near closing. Moreover, the place had a fair amount of people in the restaurant, but not at all busy.
Back then (and possibly still to this day), you would walk to a cashier/order taker first and order your burger, then you would walk over to the grill area to watch your burger be prepared, and finally you would work your way through a salad bar type area adding all of your desired condiments. Sounds good in theory, right?
Things started to go wrong the second we walked in the place. The woman who was taking orders was ignoring the line in front of her and just helping the people she felt were worthy of the World’s Greatest Hamburger. So, she helped a couple that walked in to the restaurant ahead of us and two sets of families that walked in after us. Finally, when there was nobody left, the cashier had no choice but to acknowledge our existence and take our order.
Now, to provide some background, Samantha had just got back from following the Grateful Dead and/or Phish for a few weeks. So, naturally, she had become vegetarian. It’s not a choice I would ever make for myself, but who am I to judge her decision to extend her life and lower her cholesterol.
Anyway, Samantha told me to order while she studied the menu boards above the cashier station. So, I ordered a pretty standard cheeseburger, fries and a drink.
By the time I had finished ordering, Samantha asked the cashier, “what’s your veggie burger?” Now, mind you, this almost twenty years ago. It was pretty progressive for any restaurant to have a veggie burger on the menu, but it also meant that there was no real standard for what a veggie burger was, hence Samantha’s question.
At this point, the manager/cook wondered over to the cashier station and just smiled at us. The 60-year-old crank of a cashier gave what could only be described as the perfect answer to the veggie burger question. It was a very sigh heavy/exasperated, “I have no clue.”
Before we had a chance to respond, the manager/cook interjected, “I do!” He was quite friendly and proceeding to describe the most amazing veggie burger since the dawn of time. I had actually regretted ordering the cheeseburger after hearing his description. So, Samantha says, “that sounds great! I’ll have one of those!”
This is where things really start to fall off the rails.
The manager/cook says, “we don’t have any. Nobody ever orders them, so we stopped carrying them. Wouldn’t you rather a hamburger?” Samantha, still confused by the manager/cook’s veggie bait and switch says, “no, I’m a vegetarian.” To which, the manager/cook replies, “oh, how about a turkey burger?”
Meanwhile, the cashier (without our knowledge) voids my order and proceeds to help the family of 16 that just walked in. You know, ‘cuz we are clearly not worthy of the World’s Greatest Hamburger.
Instead of confronting the turkey burger quandary, Samantha goes to the fallback position of many vegetarians and asks the manager/cook, “can you make me a grilled cheese?”
“Of course! But I’ll have to charge you for a veggie burger with cheese.”
At this point, I interject, “wait, but she’s not getting a veggie burger. All she is getting is a slice of american cheese on a bun?”
His response makes me smile to this day. He says, “you also get toppings.” As he says this, he literally gestures like Vanna White towards the tubs of iceberg lettuce and ketchup pumps behind him.
At this point, we are getting hungry so we agree to the grilled cheese at cheeseburger prices. Of course, we have to wait until the family of 16 has ordered before the old crone working the register is willing to deal with us again.
FINALLY, we have put in our order and we are waiting by the grill area. The manger/cook says that he is going to make Samantha’s grilled cheese personally.
So, on the flat top grill is eight or so hamburger patties and several strips of bacon.
What happened next still baffles/horrifies me.
The manager/cook moves some of the beef patties and bacon out of the way to clear a space. He then pulls out a package of american cheese from a fridge near the grill. He pulls out a knife to cut open the package. He proceeds to cut open his hand and he starts to bleed all over the place, including his already stained apron.
Instead of leaving the cooking area to bandage his wound, he sticks his bleeding hand into his mouth and sucks on the bloody gash. Like a 6 year old trying to get the last drop of a Capri-Sun.
With his non-wounded hand he throws a slice of cheese into a simmering puddle of beef and bacon fat. Let me repeat that to be clear, he put a slice of cheese directly onto the griddle. Not on a slice of bread on the griddle, but directly on the griddle.
The cheese instantly starts to bubble and turn brown from the heat and the 400 degree beef fat.
Finally, my mouth is able to work and I ask him, “what are you doing?!”
A confused manager/cook looks at me like I’m the moron in this transaction and replies, “um…making a grilled cheese?”
“That’s not how you make a grilled cheese! You need to put it between two slices of bread!” I exclaim to the still-bleeding manager/cook.
“This’ll be fine!” he replies as he scrapes the molten cheese onto a cold, untoasted hamburger bun.
I’m starting to laugh because the whole situation had become so bizarre, “but that’s not vegetarian!”
“Sure it is, there’s no meat,” said the still bewildered manager/cook.
“You cooked it in beef fat!” as I pointed at the strips of bacon and burgers.
Then he dropped my favorite quote of the evening, “there are different types of vegetarians. Some eat fish.”
I replied the only way I knew how, “That’s true, but I can assure you, none of them want their food cooked in beef fat and bacon grease!”
At this point, Samantha and I have truly been beaten down by the staff of Fuddruckers.
We sit down with our food and we have no interest in eating. She doesn’t want to eat a bacon fat sandwich and I am convinced I’m going to get hepatitis from Squirty Mc-No-Bandage working the grill.
And that was the last time I ever went to a Fuddruckers.