The dense and overgrown lot at the northeast corner of Johnson Avenue and Knob Creek Road once contained one of the best blackberry patches in the vicinity.
The area was also my summer lair where I could vanish into a momentary world of peace and quiet. In 1956, much to my chagrin, this field became the residence of the George McCroskey family. George soon opened a new fast-food restaurant with the curious name of Biff- (acronym for “Best in Fast Food”) Burger at 1000 W. Market Street, about one block west of the old Pepsi Cola Plant.
The food chain originated in Florida in the mid-1950s, eventually providing investors with a prefabricated “Port-A-Unit” structure that contained the necessary apparatus needed to operate the new-fangled business. The restaurant later had a distinctive “W” shaped roofline containing a series of red, blue and yellow elongated diamonds along the middle front.
As I recall, there were no inside dining facilities or drive-thru provisions at the Johnson City business. The food chain was in close proximity to our house, allowing me to quickly pedal my bicycle there to purchase carryout food from their diminutive menu that included … Broiled Burgers 19¢, Cheese Burgers 24¢, Golden French Fries 14¢, Chicken ‘n Box $1.00, Shrimp and French Fries $1.00 and Thick Milk Shakes 19¢.
I generally ordered a burger, fries and a drink, occasionally plunking down an extra nickel to embellish my meat patty with a slice of American cheese. After munching down my very first Biff-Burger, I became captivated by the distinctive taste. What made these unique tasting burgers so delectable?
The enterprise utilized a “Roto-Broiler,” a small patented dual rack metal rotisserie. Its immediate success was rooted in a two-step process for cooking its signature product. The top rack, containing infrared heat coils above and below it, allowed about three or four 100% ground beef patties to cook evenly on both sides as it slowly rotated clockwise from left to right through the unit. Hot juices from the meat dripped onto the open-faced sesame seed buns on the rotating rack below, capturing the full taste of the burgers.
After a few minutes, the meat and buns concurrently exited the right side of the rotisserie, fully cooked and ready for a refreshing dip in the hot tomato sauce containing 27 secret spices. The product was then placed onto a hot bun, after which the order was fully assembled and dispensed to the impatient hungry customer.
The operation appeared anything but high tech, but it worked to sheer perfection.The restaurant’s intent was to be more functional than aesthetic, focusing on what people wanted – reasonably priced tasty food. Patrons could observe the entire operation as their order slowly traversed the broiler. Watching the burger cook and being assembled was almost as enjoyable as consuming the broiled treat.
By the early 1960s, the Biff-Burger sizzle began to fizzle; most restaurants were sold to another fast-food franchise, Burger King. The sole survivor is a Greensboro, NC restaurant bearing the slightly altered name, Beef Burger.
The little flavorful saucy sesame bun burger might have rotated into that big rotisserie in the sky, but it is forever embedded in the taste bud memories of many area residents.