MATTOON -- Gene and Betty Hoots have sold their downtown restaurant, known as the original Burger King, to a partnership that includes local businessman Cory Sanders.
Sanders, owner and operator of the Sanders & Co. Real Estate office downtown, said the local BK Ventures LLC partnership purchased Burger King last week from the retiring owners.
"I hope we can continue what they started so many years ago," Sanders said of Gene and Betty Hoots. "They are great people and they have done great things for Mattoon."
Sanders said he and his partners aim to keep the current menu but plan to lower prices for some items, add healthy menu choices, and offer free drink refills. He said they also intend to retain the current staff while adding more employees to increase service speed, especially in the drive-through.
Plans also call for renovating the interior of Burger King in a few weeks and then the exterior when the weather warms, Sanders said. The goal is for the restaurant to continue to operate during the renovation, he said. The plans also include expanded outdoor seating, particularly for ball teams.
Growing up in Mattoon, Sanders said he has fond memories of going to Burger King with his teammates on summer nights. As a businessman, Sanders said he has grown to love the downtown business district that Burger King is part of in Mattoon.
"It's a great memory for me and a great opportunity to continue what Gene and Betty have done all these years," Sanders said. "I am just looking forward to helping a landmark in Mattoon continue to prosper."
Gene Hoots purchased the downtown Frigid Queen from his uncle, Bill Paullin, in 1952, added burgers to the menu, and opened it as Burger King in 1954.
Hoots filed Burger King as a trademark in Illinois before the national Burger King chain, founded in 1954, opened its first location in Illinois. The two Burger Kings went to federal court and the judge ruled in favor of the chain, but forbid it from coming within 20 miles of Hoots' Burger King. Sanders said this restriction will remain in place.
Burger King, with its Hooter burgers, lemon ice cream and other menu favorites, has become a Mattoon tradition over the decades.
"We do appreciate the support we have gotten. We could not have done this without the customers," Gene Hoots said. He added that he and his wife, Betty, intend to stay active in retirement. "We don't plan to just sit in a porch swing. We can't do that."
Sanders said he will likely seek input during the next few months from the couple's "wealth of knowledge" about running a restaurant. He also plans to seek photos of local history to display alongside Burger King memorabilia at the restaurant.
Other plans for Burger King include hosting car shows, holding fundraisers for local charities, and promoting specials on a Website and Facebook page.