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Food

Braum’s is the best burger joint. You’ll wish you were here

Chances are, if you live outside the middle of the country, you’ve likely never heard of Braum’s.

There are 281 family-owned Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Stores in a five-state region that I call the Circle of Freshness: Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. And, like any good Oklahoman, I feel like I have some sort of weird personal stake in Braum’s.

The soundtrack of my childhood in rural Perry, Okla., was the Braum’s jingle, played over the early 1990s TV commercials that played ad infinitum: From our farm to our store, only Braum’s gives you more. Only Braum’s gives you sooo much more!

Maybe you felt connected to Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” lady; in the 1980s, Oklahomans had comedic actor Jim Varney as a country bumpkin shilling for Braum’s. Three decades later, we’re still talking about it.

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As a kid, I used to think Brahms’ Lullaby was Braum’s Lullaby.

The Braum’s legend starts in the Great Depression. In 1933, Henry H. Braum opened a small butter-processing plant in a converted house in Emporia, Kan. In 1952, Henry and his son, Bill, bought an old Kraft cheese factory that they turned into a milk and ice cream processing plant and opened a small chain of retail ice cream stores called Peter Pan Ice Cream.

Bill took over the business in the early 1960s, bought his first dairy herd and grew the chain to 61 Peter Pan stores. In 1967, he sold those stores to a wholesaler but kept his cows and the processing plant. As a condition of the sale, the Braums weren’t allowed to sell ice cream in Kansas for a decade.

Braum’s Ice Cream & Burger Restaurant
A quarter-pound Cheeseburger Combo with a chocolate milkshake from Braum’s Ice Cream & Burger Restaurant in the Colony, Texas.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

So they headed south to the Sooner State. The first Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Store opened in Oklahoma City the next year, and the restaurants spread like a wind-whipped prairie fire. The family’s dairy herd of some 900 cows was trucked from Kansas to the new Braum Family Farm in the little town of Tuttle in a modern-day cattle drive in 1975.

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Today, all of the restaurants are within a 300-mile radius of the Tuttle farm — the site of its bakery and milk-processing plant — so the milk and ice cream can be delivered fresh. Bill and Mary Braum still live there, and the family doesn’t franchise.

“The Braum family are an example of what Oklahomans aspire to be,” said Dave Cathey, food editor at The Oklahoman. “Successful, beloved, and they do things in front of their own eyes. ... If they were to pop up little mini-dairies between here and points in every direction, they could probably spread all over the country and be successful at it, but they maintain their quality by not doing that.

“That’s kind of the stuff of legend, when you’re that tied to the rural life, to the farm life.”

The restaurants, decorated in blue and pink with framed photos of the dairy cows, essentially are three stores in one: a burger joint; an ice cream parlor; and a grocery store with produce, meat, ice cream and baked goods. The stores soon will offer curbside grocery pickup in part because too many Okies were trying to order heavy gallon jugs of milk through the drive-through.

Braum’s burgers are simple and perfect, the patties piled with cheese, onion, dill pickle, lettuce and tomato and served on a sesame seed bun baked on the Tuttle farm. You can swap your soda for an ice cream shake with any combo meal, and Braum’s golden crinkle-cut fries are crunchy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside.

Braum’s Ice Cream & Burger Restaurant
The Fresh market area of a Braum’s Ice Cream & Burger Restaurant in the Colony, Texas.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Its milk, sold by the cup and the jug, comes from the now-10,000-cow private herd on farms in rural Tuttle and Shattuck, and the milk is on store shelves within two days after it’s milked from the cows, per the company. The cows are fed Braum’s-grown corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

This summer, I took one of the guided tours of the 10,000-acre Braum Family Farm in Tuttle.

Tour-goers travel through the farm on a white Chevrolet bus decorated with cow spots. Inside the massive Braum’s bakery on-site, the air smells sweet like brownies. Workers tend to huge vats of roasting pecans, cookie conveyor belts and ice cream cone ovens that turn out up to 50,000 cones a day.

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At the end of the tour, Anita Stephens, who’s been leading people through the farm for 11 years, passed out ice cream samples. She recalled that, one time, an international visitor took a single bite, sighed and declared: “My country has been cheating me.”

I know the feeling: Braum’s was so ubiquitous that I never imagined a life without it. There seemed to be one in all the small towns. You learned to avoid the after-church lunch rush on Sundays and to go on the days your high school classmates would be working the counter.

Braum’s is a character in so many memories of home. During junior high track practice, I would stare hungrily at my coach’s glorious Braum’s Big Country Breakfast — scrambled eggs, a buttermilk biscuit, bacon, white gravy with bits of sausage and hash browns — as I ran slow laps while she ate.

A few years later, I came in dead last in a cross-country race, limped over the finish line and had to be carried to my mom’s car because I couldn’t walk. But it was worth it because I was rewarded afterward with a Braum’s strawberry shortcake sundae.

When my niece, Sophie, was born in 2015, my husband and I flew in from California and photographed the swaddled newborn next to a Braum’s bacon cheeseburger bigger than her head. Three years later, we would photograph our own infant son by a Braum’s marquee reading: BUTTER.

I was hit hard by a cold, Braum’s-less reality when I moved to California eight years ago, and even with all the hypebeast smashburger joints and ancient burger temples, I’d gladly trade a lifetime of double-doubles for just one little Braum’s outpost where the sun sets in the ocean instead of the wheat fields.


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