The Moonshine Store is one place that I've wanted to visit for quite sometime. Their "Moonburgers" have become somewhat of a phenomenon among burger aficionados over the past few years. It's not that they're exceptional burgers, it's more because of the ambiance, the history and the unique nature of the Moonshine Store.
The Moonshine Store is located in Moonshine, IL, which is, basically, a country crossroads in East Central Illinois near the small town of Martinsville, roughly half-way between Indianapolis and St. Louis off of I-70 (see map). Moonshine, IL has two citizens, Roy Lee and Helen Tuttle (left), who live above the Moonshine Store. They've owned the little country store since 1982, making up burgers for the local farmers and workers in the area ever since.
Before Roy Lee and Helen took over the Moonshine Store, a lady by the name of Enid Misner began the practice of making cold sandwiches and burgers in the store. Enid Misner used a series of small electric grills to cook the burgers. Roy Lee and Helen kept up that practice until 1993 when they ditched the small grills in favor of a gas-fired flat grill.
The Moonshine Store actually got its start in 1889 when a gentleman by William St. Martz opened the original store just north of the present day location. In 1911, a fire destroyed the original building, but St. Martz built the present day building next to where the old building stood. For years, the Moonshine Store was a gathering place for farmers who discussed the weather, crops and whatever.
It was in 2003 when CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist visited the Moonshine Store and the little secret near the Indiana border. After that report, business took off. Crowds came in so fast that Roy Lee and Helen had to install a second gas grill to keep up with the surging burger orders. Here is the segment from CBS Sunday Morning on the Moonshine Store:
Helen says in this report that the most burgers they've sold in a day is 287. Since this report was first shown, that number has gone up precipitously. Earlier this year, the Moonshine Store sold a record 1,908 burgers on a single day during the annual Moonshine Lunch Run, an annual motorcycle rally that celebrated its sixth year in April. What started out as a "fun run" for a small group of riders in 2004 ballooned to over 1100 motorcycles and 1400 attendees this year.
The charm of the Moonshine Store is the fact that they really don't sell much more than burgers. There is no such thing as French fries at the Moonshine Store. People can purchase potato chips to go along with their burgers. There are coolers that have bottles of pop, tea, lemonade and water. There's some t-shirts and some other snacks to buy, but that's about it. There are scores of napkin and paper towel packages, tons of hamburger buns on shelves, dozens of ketchup and mustard bottles in boxes - but none are for sale. They're used in the day-to-day operations by the Tuttles.
I was on my way to Indianapolis from St. Louis earlier this summer and decided that I had time to get off the interstate and find the Moonshine Store. I had it programmed into my GPS and I was beginning to doubt the mapping system until I took a right hand turn down a crushed rock and tar road, past some large grain bins standing alone with nothing but fields around them before finally coming to a crossroads with a number of cars and trucks parked along the side of the road and in a small field across the road from the Moonshine Store. There were cars from, obviously, Illinois and nearby Indiana. But I did see license plates from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio. Mine seemed to be the only car from Iowa.
I followed a group of elderly folks into the Moonshine Store. There was a large amount of people milling about the store waiting for their burger orders. Some were seated on old church pews, some were on folding chairs. Some younger 20-somethings were standing near the door, trying to stay out of the way of the constantly flowing crowd coming in and going out.
Toward the back of the store was a counter and behind that were Roy Lee and Helen cooking up dozens of burgers on the grills. Another lady was behind the counter taking orders, while another lady was over at the cash register taking money (no credit cards) from the patrons. A small menu was perched on the top of the counter. I stood patiently while the group of elderly people ordered up their burgers, sort of thankful that they were in front of me so I could take a longer look at what they have to offer.
Basically, it's burgers. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, bacon cheeseburgers, etc. I think there were a couple of chicken sandwiches, but all I remember are the burgers. You order them from the lady , give her your name and then wait with the scores of other people. I ordered up a double cheeseburger when it was my turn. I then went back toward the front of the store near the front door and hung out there as I waited.
The preparation of the burgers at The Moonshine Store is nothing special. In fact, their ground beef is delivered in tubes. Each morning for each hamburger, Helen breaks off a chunk of the ground beef, rolls it in a ball and then flattens it out by hand. The patties are saved in a container until they're used later in the day. There's no spices, no additives, nothing. There's a community condiment table in the center of the room for ketchup, mustard, onions, pickles and other stuff. I'm not sure it would pass any county's health standards, but it helps add charm to the place.
I got in just before noon and there were, possibly, 60 people waiting on burgers at that time. But not a lot of people came in after I got there. That's because Helen closes the grill precisely at 12:30 p.m. each day (they're open every day - except Sunday - from 6 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.). She may make you a cold cut sandwich if you get in after the grill is closed, but she's pretty militant on turning the grill off at 12:30 p.m.
It took over 20 minutes before Helen called out my name and I went up to get my paper plate covered with wax paper and my double cheeseburger. I put my normal condiments on top and took my burger and my bottle of water that I'd pulled out of the cooler over to the lady at the cash register to pay. It's all done on the honor system. You don't get a bill, you get your burger and what else you need and then pay the lady. My double cheeseburger and bottle of water came to $6.84. She gave me 15 cents back from the $7 bucks I gave her.
There's a large communal outdoor area with picnic tables off to the side of the Moonshine Store. It had rained rather heavily in the area the night before and there was standing water around many of the picnic tables, so it was sort of difficult to move around the tables to find a seat. I was able to share the end of a table with an older couple who had friends seated at an adjacent table.
The bun they use at the Moonshine Store is nothing special - it's a cheap bun that doesn't add anything to the flavor of the burger. But the Tuttles smash the burgers with a heavy flat iron that gives them that crispy edge. The patties are actually thicker than I anticipated, so a double cheeseburger was one large meal. They put cheese the top of both burgers and it melted perfectly on the patties so there was a cheesytaste in every bite. The burger patties were well-done, but far from overcooked. There was still a juiciness to the burgers and they had a great, flat-grilled taste. I can't say it was the best burger I ever had. I probably can't put it in my Top Ten list, but it would deserve an honorable mention. Not just for the taste of the burger, but - as I said earlier - for the atmosphere, the story and the incomparable location of the Moonshine Store.
I wasn't disappointed in the least during my visit to the Moonshine Store. I sort of knew what to expect going in, so that helped out. I knew I'd have to get there well before 12:30 p.m., I knew I'd have to wait for a burger and I knew the burgers would be pretty good. People just don't keep coming from all over to have a Moonburger if it wasn't good. And because Moonshine isn't close to anything, the burgers are the draw. But the unique nature of everything that encompasses a visit to the Moonshine Store exemplifies Middle Americana to its fullest. I want to go back...