My Family, Western Mass, and the Best Burger Shack in America
The original White Hut is in West Springfield on Memorial Ave at Bresnahan, next to a nail salon and a place that used to rent tuxedos to Cathedral kids for prom. It has sawdust on the floor, and formica counters, 12 stools that sit next to stacks of glass bottled sodas that haven’t yet been put in the coolers along the back. The counter sits facing an open flattop grill, and when you sit down, within one minute, someone will take your order. No one looks at a menu. They just shout things like, “Two cheeseburgs, grilled onions,” or “Hot dog, everything,” and the lady at the counter nods, and then turns her face slightly to her left and shouts, “NEW ORDER”, and someone cooks your order, and then they deliver it to you on a white plate, and the process repeats itself, ad abundantiam.
Before he died in 2010, my grandfather had been coming to the Hut since Edward J. Barkett opened at 280 Memorial Ave in 1939. Though I grew up in Boston, my entire family is from Springfield -- both parents, grandparents, uncles, Irish people we call uncles who aren’t actually related -- and even as such, we only really ever frequented four restaurants in the city: the Student Prince, the Monte Carlo, Red Rose Pizzeria, and the White Hut. Each served its purpose for my family, but the Hut was the catch-all.
The White Hut does not simply exist as a nostalgic bookmark shoved like a placeholder into your consciousness.
It was the place my grandfather took my friends and me after we went to Riverside Amusement Park for my birthday when I was eight, and too scared to go on that spinning thing where the floor drops out, because I heard people puke and it sticks to the wall. And the place he took us before the Hall of Fame Tip Off Classic between my boyhood local Springfield hero Travis Best’s Georgia Tech, and the Chris Webber-less Fab Four of Michigan. It was the place I went with my dad when he came to my soccer game against Springfield College not because he actually wanted to see me play Springfield College but because it gave him an excuse to go to the Hut. And it was the place I went by myself when my grandfather died, so I could silently edit the eulogy I had to deliver at Trinity Methodist on Sumner Ave.
It is a place that rings out to anyone from a certain part of Western Mass, a calling card announcing your affiliation. It is the second question I usually ask (“Do you like the White Hut?”) when I find out someone is from that area, after, “Are you or is anyone you know friends with Travis Best?” It is my favorite place to eat in the entire world.
Unlike most places from your childhood, the White Hut does not simply exist as a nostalgic bookmark shoved like a placeholder into your consciousness, waiting to inevitably disappoint you when you revisit it years later and find your childhood tastes bullshit, and your haircuts embarrassing. Despite one of the literal parts of my current job being tasting burgers, it continues to be one of the best I’ve ever had (and it’s not just me; in his 2014 book, The Hamburger: A History, the late Josh Ozersky named the Hut to his “10 burgers you must eat this year” list.)
The Hut burger is thin and griddled in that classic diner style. The cheese they use is white American, and the onions take on sort of peppery, buttery form when cooked (also, maybe from butter and pepper). The bun is thin, seedless, and doesn’t interfere. They offer up all sorts of classic fixings, but you -- and I can’t stress this enough -- need not ruin your White Hut burger with lettuce, tomato, or anything else. Some burgers are made to be sandwich stackers, to look like some sort of circular food Jenga when you’re done. The White Hut burger is not one of those. You barely need to put ketchup on it. Just get two cheeseburgers with fried onions and (maybe) ketchup, sit at the damn counter, read the Springfield Republican, and ask directions to Elk Lodge #61. Some things in life need not be made more complicated.
“There are millions of people from Springfield,” my grandfather liked to say. “But none of them live here now.”
The city of Springfield, on the other hand, is a complicated story, though not an unfamiliar one. Founded on four bluffs where several different rivers connect, it’s known as “the city of firsts” for producing (among other things) the first American musket, American-English dictionary, horseless car, vulcanized rubber, inventing basketball, then making Travis Best good at basketball, and casting him in He Got Game with my second favorite player, Ray Allen. During the 19th and mid-20th century, it also used to be the insurance hub of the US. And then it went to shit.
The Springfield Armory decommissioned in 1969, most of the insurance businesses were absorbed and moved out (though MassMutual stubbornly remains), and Springfield fell off, with white flight to the suburbs, and increases in crime and unemployment. It is the story of 50 second and third tier US cities, the ones that didn’t quite make the jump, but that sameness doesn’t make it any more or less sad or true. And now saying you’re from Springfield usually doesn’t mean you’re from Springfield, but Agawam, or Chicopee, or East Longmeadow, Wilbraham or Westfield. And when you’re actually from Springfield, no one believes you. I’ve watched my dad encounter this several times. It goes like this:
Guy in Polo shirt: Where are you from?
Dad: Western Mass.
Polo: Oh, I know Western Mass. Whereabouts?
Polo: Where around Springfield? Longmeadow?
Dad: Springfield. In the city.
Polo: You grew up in Springfield Springfield?
Dad (with a kind of weary resignation): I did.
Polo (... after twenty seconds of awkward silence): Oh.
By the time I was in college in Hartford in the early 2000s, Springfield was reeling. According to City-data.com, the violent crime rate in 2001 was 1,135 incidents per 100,000 people, four times the national average. Three years later, Springfield residents -- tired of the lack of progress and corruption -- chose to elect Charlie Ryan as mayor of the city, 42 YEARS after he beat my grandfather in 1962 by a couple hundred votes. In Springfield, history repeats itself, and more often than most places, it’s still using the same cast of characters.
A Brief History of the White Hut
In the early 1930s, Hy Roberts owned a hot dog stand in Springfield called the White Hut. But, like so many eager entrepreneurs, Hy actually just wanted to be a cigar salesman, so he asked his buddy from Benny’s Delicatessen, Edward Barkett, if he’d like to buy it for $300. Edward said, “Yes, let me just borrow that from the banks,” but the banks were all like, “You do realize this is the Depression, right?”, except one bank, which maybe hadn’t yet realized it was the Depression and lent him the money.
Barkett bought property at 280 Memorial Ave, proceeded to build the Hut out to 600sqft, and ran it until the '60s, when his son Edward H. took it over until the '90s. In 2000, Edward’s son EJ bought the Hut from him, and made a few changes, including adding fries to the menu for the first time in 61 years*, and two new locations. Other stuff has happened since then, but these are the things you need to know now.
*A real phone conversation with my grandfather, October 2000:
Me: Hi grandpa.
Grandpa: Put Kevin on the line. It’s his grandpa.
Me: Hi grandpa. What’s up?
Grandpa: Who is this?
Me: It’s Kevin.
Grandpa: You sound like a girl.
Grandpa: The White Hut has fries now! What kind of crazy hippie shit are they trying to pull?
My mom grew up in Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood, a pretty nice area next to the really nice area surrounding a 735 acre park everyone seems to think was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, though I can’t find any solid evidence to prove that. Her father (the grandfather I so often refer to) Ray Tuller, ran the Springfield Cold Food Storage Co, nearly became mayor, and, after the cold storage business went away, seemed to have one of those city jobs people get when they know someone who gives out the city jobs, managing two Mass state skating rinks in Springfield (including the aptly named Blunt Park, which my cousins and I deemed hilarious for obvious reasons).
He drank Beefeater gin out of plastic Bruins novelty cups. He built a wet bar in his basement with his own hands (and own plumbing, which was featured Bismarckian patchwork only he could decipher). He played Santa during the Christmas Bright Nights at Forest Park. He cooked pancakes at Elmcrest Country Club on the weekends. When he was 80, he’d bring a case of Heineken to my fraternity to pre-game with us before we watched my roommate’s basketball games, and no one thought a thing about it. When my roommate’s dad had a heart attack and was no longer allowed to drink liquor, Heineken or anything but “an occasional glass of red wine,” my grandfather charitably brought him one of those 300oz Carlo Rossi Paisano brand jugs of California table wine. He was not good at beer pong. He berated me constantly for being a liberal, and a hippie, and “never having a job” even when I very clearly did have a job. He sent me Halloween cards making the same joke assuring me that “I didn’t need a mask" almost every year. He once put coal in my stocking when I was seven and still believed in Santa just “to see what I’d do.” He was a glorious, glorious man.
My dad, meanwhile, grew up in the Winchester Square/McKnight district, known for its Victorian homes, and not being that safe. His father Leonard Alexander got injured in Japan in WWII and lost his football scholarship to UMass, worked at the Monsanto plant for 35 years, was a hardcore union Democrat, said “trow” instead of “throw”, and used to break donuts in half, put a pat of butter on each of the ends, and swallow it in four bites (he also put maple syrup on ice cream, which remains entirely underrated).
He liked action movies, and let me watch Rambo on the TV in his basement while he smoked his pipe, when I was way too young. He was a baseball pitcher in a semi-pro league. He shot free throws underhand, and had a good hook shot righty or lefty. He had false teeth, and he’d take them out and scare us at night. He kept a stack of Playboys by his reading chair in the den. He never talked on the phone. And once, when I was fifteen, he paid me entirely in donuts to help move his buddy into a nursing home. I didn’t put butter on them. I think that made him sad. From the time I was 17-21, I didn't see him because of an unexplained fight he'd had with my father, until he just showed up at one of my college soccer games, smoking a cigar, and standing 70 yards away from the other stands. We shook hands after, and I didn't see him again for three years. He was a complicated man.
Just get two cheeseburgers with fried onions and (maybe) ketchup. Some things in life need not be made more complicated.
Both of my grandfathers belonged to the same Elks Lodge, #61. They used to play poker together. They were not friends.
I asked my parents to give their recollections of the first time they went to the Hut. My mom’s experience was from childhood, where she remembers being “four or five” and having her “dad prop me up on the stool on the counter”, and “feed me bites of cheeseburger.” When I asked if that burger had grilled onions on it, she confessed that she couldn’t remember, and I got weirdly agitated.
My dad’s first experience with the Hut was not until he was 16 and working at the Breck shampoo plant in West Springfield, with the “machines that would pack the tubes of shampoo in boxes, and we’d lift those boxes and stack them on pallets.” They’d have 30 minutes for lunch, so they’d punch their time cards, and run across the street to the Hut and take down “two burgers and a dog” and then run back to the shampoo plant. I didn’t ask my dad about the grilled onions, because I was already feeling bad that my hardest job in high school involved refereeing third grade girls basketball and trying not to call traveling on every possession.
Google Street View is now offering an option where you can turn back the clock and look at pictures of a house or street or block from when they first started documenting them up until now. I did that with my grandparents’ place on Chalmers St, and the first picture takes you back to 2007, and my grandfather’s champagne colored Mercury wagon with three old cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee sits out in the driveway. A trash can stuffed to the brim with boxes sits at the curb. Their green and white striped awning, which always made their porch look kinda of like an old timey pharmacy is also up. And then you zoom forward to 2011, a year after their deaths, when the house was sold, and it looks freshly painted, and there is a pink chair outside the now awning-less screened-in porch. It looks clean, and tidy, and happy. I hate it so much.
The last time I was at the Hut was on my way back from doing a story about rather intense croquet enthusiasts in the Berkshires. I’d borrowed my sister’s car in Boston and driven out for a night to do my reporting/ watch old people in white clothing drink a LOT of gin, then made sure to leave enough time the next day for a West Springfield detour. As I took my place at the formica counter, and ordered my requisite two cheeseburgers with grilled onions, I sensed that I was being watched by the guy next to me. I glanced sideways and gave a nod, which he interpreted as my tacit permission to start in with some questions. “Where you from,” he asked, in a tone more challenging than friendly. I paused, and sat watching the grill start to sizzle and pop as my two burger patties cooked. “Here,” I said, quietly. “I’m from here.”
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large. Hit him up if you know and/or are Travis Best @KAlexander03.