This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.
On a sunny Thursday in June of 2014, President Obama landed at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International airport. From there, he made his way down to South Minneapolis to meet with a local woman who had written to him about the economy and hardships that she and her family were facing. It was lunchtime and— adhering to his image as a man of the people—he chose a neighborhood burger joint. Neither the patrons nor the staff at Matt's Bar knew he was coming. The president ordered the burger that made the spot famous, the Jucy Lucy, a cheeseburger consisting of two pancake-sized beef patties with molten cheese inside them. The burger has become a culinary legend and was created in 1954 by owner Matt Bristol, who passed away hours before President Obama's visit.
"Matt bought the restaurant and ran it for 30 years. He passed it down to his daughter, who ran it for 8 years, and now there are new owners. But with all that time, nothing has changed as far as the product and the look of the place," said Paul Rees, who has been the manager and main cook at Matt's Bar for the last 13 years. From the outside, it looks like your average neighborhood Midwestern bar—and in a way, it's just that. It's only when you walk in and see the jukebox and the black and white pictures of local and national celebrities that you realize that you are in a place with history that has managed to stay the same through the decades.
There are many variations on the burger and it's made at restaurants across the country. But to Rees, the Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar is unmatched. He believes that the story of how Bristol came up with the first burger solidifies that he was the inventor. "One of the regular customers asked him to try something different, and wanted the cheese to be in the middle and two patties, so he did that," explained Rees. "When he took his first bite, he yelled, 'That's one juicy Lucy!' and that's how it all started."
Soon after, customers couldn't get enough of the burger and Bristol added it to his menu. Some years later, an artist made T-shirts for the bar but misspelled "Juicy" as "Jucy," and Bristol adopted the spelling. He was known to say that if you go somewhere and it's spelled correctly, you're not eating a Jucy Lucy.
About eight minutes away from Matt's Bar sits the 5-8 Club, another Minnesota burger joint known for its Juicy Lucy. It's been open since 1928, having started out as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It was originally just one room that served beer and liquor illegally. Since 1996, it has been owned and operated by Food Services Inc.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been an unspoken rivalry between Matt's Bar and 5-8, with each of their customer bases saying the Jucy Lucy started at their favorite hangout.
"I wasn't born yet when the Juicy Lucy was created—and notice, we spell it with an 'i,'" said Jill Skogheim, president of Food Services Inc., who oversees all aspects of the business. "But there are customers that insist that it was created at the 5-8. I think it's a little bit like Pat and Geno's in Philly. This rivalry is all part of the intrigue about the Juicy Lucy." To Skogheim, the Juicy Lucy is Minneapolis' contribution to the culinary world and it holds a special place in American food lore.
Back at Matt's Bar, Rees insisted the rivalry is lighthearted and fun. There is no documentation purporting to show who invented the burger, and no patent to claim ownership. "As far we know, we are the original creators of it and I have no idea what their story is, but it's all in good fun," Rees said as he lined up an order of cheese-oozing Jucy Lucys.
While Matt's Bar only claims one location and only sells the Jucy Lucy, the 5-8 Club has a full menu and has added three other locations. For both bars, though, longtime employees who treat customers like family have been a big part of their success. While we may never know who actually came up with the Jucy Lucy, one thing everyone can agree on is the fact that it has put Minnesota on the map as the place to go for an incomparable burger.