What Makes Michigan's Beloved Olive Burger Unique?

Though its origins can be traced as far back as the Romans, there is nothing as decidedly American as a burger. These humble, flavorful sandwiches certainly have their fair share of devotees, each of whom have their own preferred way to make and assemble one. For example, in Connecticut, the birthplace of the American burger, burgers can be broiled or steamed and enthusiasts for each cheerily claim theirs to be the very best way to go about the task of cooking up burgers. Still, whether grilled or pan fried, rare or medium, cheese or no cheese, there really is no wrong way to go about making a burger. They're very forgiving and first bites are almost always followed by smiles.

In Michigan, there is something a little more unique and nostalgic going on. Over in The Mitten State — look at a map and tell us we're wrong — there is a very special, very singular way of serving up patties.And although their topping of choice may seem unusual to outsiders, Michiganders can't seem to get enough of it.

Known simply as the olive burger, this beloved sandwich has something of a mysterious backstory. Found almost exclusively in Michigan, the olive burger is as beloved and identifying a state symbol as apple blossoms and brook trout. Though no one can tell you exactly where, who, or when the olive burger became a trend, they can tell you that these briny sandwiches stir up memories of good times and generations past. 

Mysterious beginnings

The most widely accepted origin story of the olive begins something like this: Back in 1923, a little burger joint in Flint, Michigan started serving burgers topped with chopped green olives. Though they have never claimed credit for actually creating the sandwich, the location of the original Kewpee Hotel Hamburg is considered by many to be the starting point of the olive burger phenomenon. This humble Flint burger shack was the beginning of one of the country's oldest fast food chains. Today, more of an Ohio institution, the original Kewpee location is known as Halo Burger. Still, it remains one of the most cherished and prized burger joints in eastern Michigan.

Regardless of where exactly the olive burger started, there is no doubt in the minds and hearts of olive-loving Michiganders that the state capital, Lansing, is the city most associated with these briny, meaty sandwiches. Traveling westward from Flint, the olive burger became a well-established staple of the city. One cannot go to Lansing without trying an olive burger from one of the city's most beloved restaurants. 

Despite being outshone in notoriety by other Michigan cities like Detroit or Grand Rapids, Lansing clings to the olive burger as a symbol of its importance to the state. Of course, being the capital helps, too. 

What is an olive burger?

The components to an olive burger are very simple. Though the name may suggest that the patty itself is a mixture of olives and beef, this is not the case. Rather, a classic Michigan olive burger, like the one served at the original Kewpee in 1923, is a simple beef patty topped with Swiss cheese, chopped green olives, and mayonnaise. That's it. There's nothing outwardly fanciful about this burger. It's not topped with a ridiculous array of ingredients, but a simple combination of savory mainstays. However, there is one location in Lansing that holds tight to a family recipe. 

In Lansing, the olive burger's claim to fame rests on the shoulders of a familiar-sounding name. Weston's Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe has been topping its burgers with the same olive-mayonnaise sauce for nearly 100 years – and they have no plans of revealing their secret recipe anytime soon.

An olive burger's flavor has been described as something of a hit or miss. This mostly has to do with the olives, which themselves are a polarizing food. For anyone who deeply loves the salt and mild bitterness of a well-seasoned olive, topping a burger seems only logical. A bite of an olive burger is one filled with savory goodness. The mayo cuts in with a dash of creaminess, while the mild tang of the Swiss cheeses mellows the olives harsher flavors, leading to a balanced, yet still distinctly olive-centered experience.

Where to find olive burgers

Outside of Michigan, your chances at finding an olive burger are minimal at best. Still, as the most ardent foodies will stop at nothing to procure the dish they've set their hearts on consuming, there are several locations throughout Michigan, with Flint, Lansing, and Grand Rapids as your best bets for finding a restaurant that serves olive burgers.

Starting in Flint, there is the ever loved Halo Burgers, the classic stop where many say the olive burger phenomenon began. Originally part of the Kewpee chain, Halo has become a brand all its own and purely Michigan. Still serving the same olive burger that became an icon in 1923, along with other Mitten State classics like Vernors soda pop and Boston Coolers, you can find a Halo at 7 different locations in the greater Flint area.

As for Lansing, there is Weston's Kewpee Shoppe, as well as Olympic Broil, and each have been happily servicing Lansing's olive burger cravings for the past 60 years. Over in Grand Rapids, relative newcomer to the olive burger game is The Filling Station. Though they've only been serving olive burgers since 2007, they've earned a reputation for serving up some pretty delicious sandwiches. 

A burger with nostalgia

If there is an undercurrent flowing through present society, it is the nostalgia for days long past. One need only look at some of the most popular films and television shows of the last five years to see the truth in this. Very often, the foods of our youth stick with us long into adulthood. More often than not, these foods are associated with a specific person. We pine for our Mother's pasta or Grandma's apple pie, and smile as we remember how Grandpa loved to drink his scotch with a maraschino cherry. And olive burgers are no exception to this rule.

Lansing, in particular, is home to many nostalgia seeking-diners. As the Lansing State Journal explains, some remember how their parents or grandparents would take them out for olive burgers. Others enjoy the history behind the sandwich, and the local flare it brings to town. Some even love the nostalgia simply for nostalgia's sake, though they themselves may have no outward connection to the olive burger.

Regardless of your opinion on olives, the folks of Michigan cannot seem to get enough of them. And, as 2023 represents 100 years of olive burgers, we can only assume that enthusiasts hope for their favorite sandwich's continued popularity for another century to come.