Sunday, August 8, 2010

No Comparison: Feltner’s A Cut Above Fast Food

Feltner’s Whatta-burger
1410 N. Arkansas Ave.
Russellville, AR
Visited July 29

Beer selection: None

Food: Burgers & fries

If I ever wanted to do one of those ridiculous tax payer funded research projects on something like comparing burgers from a fast food drive-through to real a mom & pop burger joint, this is where I would start (after I secured the $2 million earmark from my congressman by hiring his brother-in-law).

At least it would be more appetizing than some tax payer funded study of cow flatulence. I mean, who cares? The only good cow is a dead one on a buttered bun.

As it turns out, Feltner’s Whatta-burger shares a lot more in common with its ubiquitous namesake national chain than just a surname. But a simple fast food joint it is not.

If you’ve ever traveled any stretch of I-10, you already know all about Whataburger. Its florescent orange A-shaped roof can be spotted at virtually every exit from Tucson to Jacksonville.

And I have to admit, for fast food, you can do a lot worse than Whataburger.

First of all, most Whataburgers are open 24 hours. For those of you who lock the front door at sundown and go to bed as soon as the last notes on American Idol are sung, this may not matter to you.

But if you were Suit757, you’d recognize what a godsend a well placed 24 hour fast food restaurant can be.

In case you haven’t left the ground in the last two or three decades, they stopped serving food on planes during the first term of the Reagan Administration.

No meals in coach. No meals in first class.

So by the time I hit the ground at midnight or 1am, I haven’t eaten in 12 hours.

In other words, I’m hungry. And tired.

Just hand me through my car window a decent burger in a sack and let me go home.

On the 30 minute drive I take from the airport to my home, there are exactly two fast food places that stay open past 9:30pm. McDonalds and Whataburger.

Not much of a decision there.

So you can find me wearing my suit at 1am in the Whataburger drive-through at least half a dozen times per month.

Now, one of the prices to pay for living in rural America far away from liberals, Prius-clogged HOV lanes, hand-holding men and traffic jams of soccer mom driven minivans is that getting good help can be tough.

Out here, the pickins get pretty slim for filling that 1am burger flipper position.

Consequently, the odds that my local Whataburger gets my order correct, is about equal to discovering an honest member of Congress. It hardly ever happens.

But if you can overlook the lousy service, I can testify, as a frequent patron, the burgers are pretty good.

My extensive research (90 seconds on Google) indicated that Feltner’s Whatta-burger in Arkansas has no connection past or present to the national fast food Whataburger.

That would be a good thing. The entire point of this blog is to highlight unique places serving things you can’t get back home.

I immediately began questioning the veracity of my research the moment I pulled into the parking lot. Notice a certain prominent architectural feature?

Yeah. A big A-shaped roof over the entrance. I was suspicious.

That suspicion dissipated the moment I walked through the front door and was accosted by a young lady with a clip board, demanding my order.

Gee, they definitely don’t have service like this at my fast-food Whataburger.

With the efficiency of an assembly line, the girl with the clipboard wrote my order on a white bag, handed it to the cashier, who called out the order to the four perky people happily cooking and assembling all the food.

A few moments later, after paying for my double-meat-double cheese whatta-burger and fries (the exact same thing I order at the chain), the aforementioned meal is handed to me in the same bag that clip board girl wrote on just moments earlier.

Happy, cheerful, friendly employees? Efficient service? An accurate order?

Definitely not the Whataburger I know.

Feltner’s has been a family run place since 1967 and doesn’t look anything like a fast food joint. The inside is decorated with pictures of happy customers, snarling Razorbacks, local scenes and little league teams and quirky sayings like “You don’t learn anything the second time you’re kicked by a mule.”

So you can imagine my disappointment when I unwrapped my burger and saw such a familiar sight staring back at me – the exact same burger I eat at least once per week after my drive home from the airport.

Now granted, it didn’t quite have that same thrown together look and taste of a fast-food burger. This one was treated with a little more home-grown TLC.

But come on, it was essentially the same burger.

Same bun. Same beef patties. Same condiments.

Heck, the onions and lettuce were even chopped the exact same way as at the fast food chain.

Obviously, there was some connection between Feltner’s and the national chain at some point. It may be lost to history (or Google and Wikipedia), but the similarities can’t be explained by coincidence alone.

That’s why Feltner’s would be a perfect control in my fast food study. If everything else is held the same – same name, same architecture, same menu, same ingredients, what exactly does a local family-owned, independent operation add to the burger experience?

As it turns out, despite my initial disappointment at missing the opportunity to try a new and different burger, I concluded that it can add a lot.

It adds a sense of place.

I may never step foot in Russellville, Arkansas again, but I can definitely say I’ve been there now. I was served by the locals and dined with them, surrounded by pictures and sayings that reflect who they are and what they care about.

Can you say that about any corporate cookie-cutter fast food restaurant at the end of the I-40 exit ramp? Of course not.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt

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