The west Kentucky region is home to some great burger joints, but often there’s more to these places than just a good burger. Austin Carter is a self-proclaimed burger enthusiast and he's starting a new series about the people that make these burgers special. His first installment of “Beyond the Burger” begins in Marshall County, Kentucky.
On average, Americans eat nearly 50 billion hamburgers every year, according to the Center For Investigative Reporting. That’s 3, per person, per week, or enough to circle the earth 32 times.
Amidst acres of farmland sits a small grey building, with two older gas pumps under a red awning, that harkens back to a time before you could swipe your credit card at the pump.
The Brewers Grocery has been around a long time. It’s a little place where farmers and locals can stop in to top off their tank, grab a beer or a bite to eat. They serve breakfast and lunch with an array of American staples, from biscuits and gravy and hashbrowns, to cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches or hot ham and cheese. Nearly everyone I met there had a background in farming, including the owner, Sunny Patel.
“We have, like, milk buffalo. We have some ox which we can use as a plow. We don’t have, at that time, modern technology available, so we used mostly ox to plow the field," said Patel.
Patel and his family own the Brewers Grocery. They emigrated from India about 17 years ago, and in some ways, the Patels stand out in Marshall County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97.9% of the county’s population is white, with just one-percent foreign-born persons.
Sunny is warm and endearing as he talks about his past, and he’s come a long way from hitching his plow to an ox to tend his family’s fields. He says there’s always an adjustment when coming to a new place.
“First thing, you don’t know the people. Second thing, people don’t know you. That’s what it is. If they know you then you’re alright.”
After nine months of owning the store, many people have gotten to know the Patels and their menu, like Mike Burchett who stops in for lunch when he’s farming in the area.
“Well sometimes I get the fried bologna. They have good fried bologna. They have pretty good cooks here. We like the lady that does our food," said Burchett.
That's Sunny’s wife, Rashmi. She tends a small flat-iron grill in a blue floral shirt with her dark hair tied back. She says there’s one thing that brings in many of her hungry customers.
“A lot of people come here and say you make a good cheeseburger in the world. You are a good cheeseburger making in Marshall County,” said Rashmi Patel.
This Indian-American vegetarian whips up a juicy loaded burger with all the trimmings including jalapenos for some added flair.
It was fresh and fixed to order, with a side of friendly conversation and discussion. While cheeseburgers are what brought me and many others to the Brewers Grocery, It’s not what brought the Patels to America or west Kentucky.
“I love democracy and freedom, opportunity. That’s what brings me over here,” said Sunny Patel.
Cultures meet in the store and find the common ground they have as Americans; beliefs about the importance of work, the freedom of self-determination, and the inevitable need to adapt to the present.
“This country’s the land of the free," said Sunny Patel. "This country, they’re expecting for you to do something. If you are here, move forward. That’s what we teach from this country. Time change, you change. But don’t change your honesty, your policy, what you believe in.”
Times change, and we change, but one thing always has a power to bring people together, food. But somehow, I left the store feeling like I had gained more than just a good meal.
I had reinforced my belief in the American dream and spirit, embodied by hardworking people looking for opportunities to grow and move forward.
Beyond the Burger is an occasional series by Austin Carter, a self-proclaimed burger enthusiast. This series focuses on the people and stories Austin encounters along his tour of locally owned burger joints.