If you’re driving through Mattoon, Illinois on an empty stomach and type “Burger King” into your GPS, you’ll be directed to one at the center of town, with the next closest lying more than 23 miles away. But upon arriving at the town BK, you’ll find that the classic red, yellow, and blue logo is replaced by a black-and-white sign, and the menu is noticeably different from other Burger Kings across the country.
This is Illinois’ original Burger King. Known to locals as simply “Burger King,” the small restaurant has no affiliation with the multinational fast food chain, but it sure has a long, complex legal history with it.
In 1952, Gene and Betty Hoots purchased Mattoon’s Frigid Queen ice cream shop and added burgers and fries to the menu. In need of a name change, Gene suggested renaming the shop to The Hot Dames, but Betty pointed out that “every queen needs a king.”
Taking his wife’s advice, Gene formally registered the restaurant as Burger King in 1959. His uncle, the former owner of Frigid Queen, advised him to register Burger King as an Illinois state trademark, which Gene did. Although it seemed like a meaningless decision at the time, it resulted in one of the most fascinating trademark disputes in legal history.
Although the now-famous Burger King chain first opened in Miami in 1954, by 1959 it hadn’t yet expanded to Illinois. But when it started setting up shop in the Hoots’ home state in the ’60s, the family filed a state lawsuit, claiming that it had the rights to be the original and only Burger King in the Prairie State. The multinational chain responded with a federal suit, Burger King of Florida, Inc. Vs. Hoots (1968), and met the Hoots’ local Mattoon lawyer with a professional team of six attorneys.
Needless to say, the small family business didn’t stand a chance to uphold their state trademark against the power of a major corporation. In an important moment in legal history that served as a key interpretation of the Lanham Act, the United States’ primary federal trademark statute, the court ruled that the Burger King chain could operate anywhere in Illinois outside of a 20-mile radius of Mattoon.
But that still wasn’t enough for the fast food company. Burger King reportedly offered the Hootses $10,000 for permission to operate inside the 20-mile radius, but in an effort to preserve their claim and hinder competition, the family declined the offer.
To this day, the nearest Burger King to Mattoon is in Tuscola, a full 23 miles away from Mattoon. Serving Hooter Burgers (the family’s spin on the Whopper), it seems that the Hoots’ long legal battle has paid off after all, as to this day, Illinois’ original Burger King draws in hundreds of new customers fascinated by the restaurant’s peculiar history.