Restaurant owner Bill Krekel is known around central Illinois for his hamburgers. Since 1953 he's been serving up "Krekelburgers," as people call them, at hamburger stands in Decatur, Springfield, and Mount Zion. Bill Madlock, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, grew up in Decatur and swears by Krekelburgers. So does country singer Crystal Gayle, who stopped off for a sandwich on her way to the Nashville North nightclub in nearby Taylorville. Krekel says that years ago he sent the first American hamburgers to Russia, when a group of exchange students attending Eisenhower High School in Decatur took home a dozen Krekelburgers in a cooler.
But despite his famous hamburgers, most people in Decatur know Krekel as the Chicken Man. For 30 years now he's been driving around in Cadillacs with big red-and-white fiberglass chicken heads on the roof and black-and-white fiberglass tail feathers on the trunk lids. Krekel's friend Paul White, a Kentucky sculptor who specializes in fiberglass animals, designed the first chicken car in 1972. (One afternoon, when Krekel and his wife Nancy were driving it back to Decatur from their vacation home in the Lake of the Ozarks, they overheard a trucker on their CB radio declaring, "Lady, you're going to see the most gorgeous cock on the interstate." The woman shot back, "That's not a cock, that's a rooster.") Krekel decided to order one for each of his four Decatur hamburger stands. Of course, he had to add chicken sandwiches to his menus, but the cars were worth it. One had a pair of speakers under the hood, and with the press of a button it would start clucking.
Krekel, who just turned 80, grew up in the restaurant business. His adoptive father, Fred, worked the night shift at Greider's Cafe in Macon, Illinois. "There were seven kids in our family, and none of us were brothers and sisters," says Krekel. "I didn't know Fred Krekel wasn't my dad until I was about 40 years old. I went to the courthouse and looked. It broke my heart. I went into a local bar and was told I was given to Fred Krekel wrapped in a newspaper. That bar was full, and you know what I told those people? 'Somebody missed a damn good son.'"
He never got past the fourth grade. At 15 he began working at the Steak 'n Shake in Decatur (the third one built in the U.S.), and by 1953 he'd opened the first Krekel's, on Eldorado Street. Every time he acquired or opened a restaurant, Krekel slapped his name on it: Krekel's Dairy Maid, Krekel's Custard, Krekel's Kustard North, Krekel's West at Colonial Mall. Five miles south, on Illinois 121 in Mount Zion, is Krekel's Feed Lot, with its fiberglass cow parked in front. He also has one restaurant in Springfield, called, simply enough, Krekel's.
Krekel still has two of the chicken cars, both made from 1993 Cadillac Broughams, and a new one is on the way. "A chicken does not work on any other car but a Cadillac," Krekel insists. "I've tried them on a Buick. But Cadillacs are gorgeous, and the rear end is wider." The chicken car is nine feet high at the peak of the chicken's head, which is fastened to a stainless steel plate and riveted and glued to the roof. A button inside the car makes the chicken's red eyes light up. The sides of the car are custom painted with red and white stripes and black speckled dots.
Known around Decatur for his generosity, Krekel used to loan out the chicken cars for weddings and parades. A couple years ago a resident borrowed one for a birthday party and failed to notice the clearance on a viaduct. The chicken was decapitated. Another time he loaned a chicken car to country singer Mickey Gilley, who drove it to his hometown of Branson, Missouri. "The radiator blew up," Krekel says. "He was stuck in that chicken car right on the main drag in Branson."
The chicken cars seemed to guarantee misadventure. "A couple drunks took one to Springfield and we couldn't find it," Krekel recalls. "I called the police dispatcher and she starts laughing. I said, 'What are you laughing about?' She said she couldn't put out a bulletin because everyone would call in. So I told her just to keep her eye out for it if she could." The chicken car was quickly recovered, parked outside a Springfield bar. "The insurance company gets funny about these cars," Krekel says. "We park them now more than we drive them." On Halloween 1994 a chicken car built from a 1977 Cadillac appeared onstage at a pops concert of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra in Springfield. The conductor stood on the roof as he led the orchestra in "Hens and Cocks" from Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals.
Krekel is still feisty, but a couple of strokes have slowed him down. His wife died in 1996 after 48 years of marriage. Now Darlene Black, an employee for 33 years, drives him around. On good days she'll take him to his Springfield store; other times he'll spend his mornings fishing for crappie and walleye in Lake Decatur. His oldest daughter, Suzanne Bourne, manages all four Decatur stores. His son, Rick, owns Krekel's Kustard North, and a daughter, Kimberly Patient, owns Krekel's Custard on East Wood.
Krekel's Dairy Maid, across the street from the Staley corn-processing plant and down the road from the Soy City Motel, does the highest volume of all the stores. Krekel purchased it in 1982, when it was a custard stand. "When I bought that place, they wouldn't allow me to drive the chicken car near them," Krekel says. "I had to park down the street. I took over, ripped everything out, and put our hamburgers in. They did $175,000 in one year. We took it to $800,000 in two years. They closed in the winter. We stayed open 12 months, standing out there and shivering to get them hamburgers out."
Karin Poling remembers those days: a 20-year veteran of Krekel's, she hires, fires, and does prep work at the Krekel's on Main Street. "Krekel is a lot more mellow now," Poling says. "When I was first hired on, he was tough. He used to make me cry five or six times a day. That's just how he was. He is old school. His theory was to yell at me to straighten everyone else out; like if the ice cream cone was too big. Or if I put too many pickles on a sandwich. It's two pickles for a single, two for a double, three for a triple. If you put too many on, that was too much money out the window." Yet the stores have survived because they're still affordable: a hamburger is $1, a cheeseburger $1.90. "People can still feed their families here," says Bourne.
Things are tough in Decatur these days. Last year Crane Pumps & Systems closed its 87-year-old factory and laid off 82 employees, and Bridgestone/Firestone closed its Decatur plant, laying off a staggering 1,500 workers. "It's hard times again," says Krekel. "It's just like when I was a child. When I started I'd go around and ask neighbors, 'Can I dig some of your potatoes?' 'Can I dig some of your tomatoes?' But our business has not fallen off. During April the Main Street store had the best week it has ever had.
"You know, my wife hated the chicken car," Krekel says. "But when she was ready to go, she'd jump in it and wave to all the kids. You know how your wife hates something, yet she don't hate something?" Krekel has always been a little different, and he's not going to change at 80. "You know why I'm successful in the hamburger business? Because I have a sense of humor. I enjoy being around people. Life ain't funny if you can't have a little fun."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.