The History of Food: Who Invented the Cheeseburger?

2018-10-28T10:43:35+00:00Food, History, Travel|

The history of the cheeseburger is long and delicious, but the question is, who invented it?

There is nothing more satisfying than a well-made, well-constructed cheeseburger. Adding cheese elevates the basic burger and, without it, we would never have the worship-worthy bacon cheeseburger… can you even imagine a world without cheese and bacon piled high on a burger? Me neither. Adding the cheese was such an important step in the burger evolution that I became desperate to find out where it all started. Who was the genius that first added a piece of cheese to a sizling burger patty? That’s a harder question than you might think.

If the cheeseburger was invented today, it would’ve hit a record number of likes on Instagram and restaurants all over the world would be scrambling to out-cheese-burger the original cheeseburger. But back before the internet and especially before social media, word had to spread across states and countries and this process took time. It’s possible someone completely unknown invented the idea and because their story never spread, we’ll never know that they were the first. There are a lot of stories and claims when it comes to the first burger with cheese, and really… there’s no way to prove who’s right.

Kaelin's Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky

Kaelin’s Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky

One of the strongest urban legends comes from Louisville, Kentucky where Kaelin’s claims to have invented the iconic buger sandwich. According to legend, the historical restaurant wanted to make their burger sandwich more exciting, so they threw some cheese on it, just as they might any other sandwich. It was an instant hit and secured them in the lore of the cheeseburger. Were they the first? Well, yes and no. They may have been the first to call the sandwich a “cheeseburger” in 1934 but there are other stories about burgers with cheese that pre-date Kaelin’s creation.

The Rite Spot Sandwich Shop, Pasadena, California 1920s-1930s

The Rite Spot in Pasadena, California

In fact, most credit a sixteen year old kid in 1924 who casually dropped a piece of cheese on his burger while working for his dad’s sandwich shop, The Rite Spot, in Pasadena, California (a long ways away from Kentucky). After he and his father enjoyed the creation, they added it to their menu as a cheese-hamburger. While many believe this story is accurate, it seems the name itself has become a sticking point – is it really the first cheeseburger if it was called a cheese-hamburger? I mean, yes?….

Humpty Dumpty Drive-in, Denver, Colorado - 1930s

Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, Colorado

But if name really does matter, than maybe the invention of the cheeseburger goes to the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In, located in Denver, Colorado. In 1935, Louis Ballast claimed to have invented the sandwich and registered the trademark. (Unfortunately for Ballast, Kaelin’s is said to have a printed menu from 1934 showing cheeseburger on their menu. Unfortunately for Kaelin’s, they didn’t trademark the term.)

Original Steak n' Shake in Normal, Illinois

Other Claims

Other claims include Gus Belt who founded Steak n’ Shake in Normal, Illinois; and the restaurant O’Dell’s in Los Angeles, California (although this was more of a chili-cheeseburger).

The truth is, people all over probably “invented” the cheeseburger: fry cooks, stay-at-home moms, chefs, butchers,… the sandwich is so iconic that almost every restaurant has a version (I can even get one at my local hole-in-the-wall Chinese food joint… not that I would when I could just get amazing Chinese food instead!). It doesn’t really matter who invented the cheeseburger, I don’t care what the name on the restaurant is, all I care about is the taste and how I feel when I first bite in. But, to the real, first person to add cheese to a hamburger (known or unknown), I salute you! Thanks for helping to make my life just a little brighter (and a little fatter)!