What makes a brand authentic?
I recently found out one chilly April day at the Maid-Rite diner, an unassuming hamburger stand operating in a modest neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois.
Springfield, the Illinois state capital, is only 180 miles south of Chicago but in a completely different world culturally. This is a land of corn fields and St. Louis Cardinal fans, where the store clerks and tourists in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum speak with a slight southern accent. You don’t have to look hard to find vestiges of lost Route 66 culture, including Maid-Rite, which opened in 1924 to serve the increasingly mobile population.
Open for business in downstate Illinois
Today Maid-Rite still serves its signature loose hamburger on a steamed bun with “a lil-bit of mustard, pickle, relish, and onion” according to a sign on a plain wall. The original building — a caboose — houses the kitchen. You eat your Maid-Rite hamburger in a dining room with cheap oil paintings and pencil drawings of Abe Lincoln on the walls and faded tile on the floors.
My family and I stopped at Maid-Rite on a damp April Saturday and were immediately greeted by a young man who addressed me with a soft-spoken “yes sir” and a smile. In fact, everyone here calls you sir and ma’am as they take your order from behind a weather-beaten counter and bring plates of fries and Maid-Rite burgers to your imitation-wood table.
The dining room itself has a perfectly random, broken-in feel that national restaurant chains strive to emulate with pretentiously mounted paddles and “antique” looking metal signs. The house rules posted above the serving window are plainly stated and not an attempt to be ironic or nostalgic:
And they ain’t joking!
No laptops. No cell phones. No honey lattes.
In addition to the lovely cheesy oil paintings that reminded me of my parents’ finished basement in the 1970s, I found a book case in the back of the room improbably filled with old editions of The American Peoples Encyclopedia.
The walls of Maid-Rite
And the food is as tasty, too — for $5.99 I sunk my teeth into two tangy Maid-Rite burgers, fries, and a soda, straight from the kitchen to our table. And my daughter got a surprise serving of free ice cream.
Another satisfied Maid-Rite customer
Food served without pretension
Midwestern politesse, a naturally worn dining room, and loosely packed hamburger on a steamed bun — this is what makes Maid-RIte an authentic brand. When the wait staff smile and greet you at the door with a quiet welcome, you know they mean it. These are not actors playing some kind of scripted part at a Dick’s Last Resort. And the simple environment is real, not manufactured to look that way.
What does an authentic brand look like to you?