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Gallery 7

Geri's Hamburgers

Geri's, a Rockford based franchise chain of drive in restaurants was co-founded by Richard Simonovich and Gene Hawker, who together founded Progressive Steel Treating located in Loves Park in 1956. There has been a long standing rumor that one of the founders was a former vice president of McDonald's, this was verified to be not true by a Simonovich family member, a son of the founder. The name of the chain was devised by combining two letters of the owner’s first names, Ge for Gene and Ri for Richard.

They would open their first drive in at 3509 East State Street in December 1960. The concept was almost identical to a drive in chain started several years earlier named McDonald's. Like McDonald's the restaurant with its large towering arched shape red and blue sign, had a walk up window where you would place your carry out order to eat in your car or take elsewhere. They also offered a limited menu of burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks. The grand opening was held on January 14 & 15, 1961. Thousands of people from Rockford and the surrounding area turned out causing much traffic congestion, so much in fact that many patrons were not able to make it into the lot. Over 13,000 hamburgers were sold during the Geri's two day grand opening celebration. The restaurant provided a parking lot for 100 cars; it must have stirred up a lot of gravel dust because the lot was not paved until April 1961. Instant Service and Freshly Made - "Serving the All American Hamburger".

Next to join the company as its first franchise owner-operator was Emmanuel “Manny" Lyristakis who would open Geri's Hamburgers second location at 2521 Auburn Street on June 12, 1962. The store was identical in style to the East State location with red, blue and white as the main colors of the stores exterior and signage, many times in the form of tiles. There would be one big difference however when a flag  pole was installed on June 14 and a flag was raised by the Boy Scouts and  Explorer Scouts while the Purple Knights drum and bugle corps supplied the music  for the event. The idea of installing the flag pole and holding flag raising ceremonies came to Lyristakis after reading an editorial article on flag display in a Rockford newspaper. Another flag pole was installed at the East State location in July, and was included as part of every Geri's drive in from that point on. A third Geri's Drive In was opened at 835 West Galena in Freeport in August 1962.

"Geri" was the cartoon style mascot being in the form of a hamburger complete with eyes, arms and legs coming from the sides and bottom of the bun. "Geri" was very similar to the McDonald's "Mr. Speedee" character. They would use this mascot into the early 1970's when they considered it  dated and childish and dropped it from their signs and advertising and would unveil a new more modern logo that fit better with the changing tastes and times. Did McDonald's copy Geri's when they introduced Mayor McCheese that looked like a version of "Geri"?

In early 1964 Simonovich and Hawker sold the franchise company to Ken Schroeder and Herb Waters who formed a new franchise company named Kenherb Operating Company. The company headquarters were located in an office building at 1415 East State Street. Schroeder and Waters also retained ownership of the East State Street location. They started aggressively marketing for franchise operators to expand the chain of three restaurants.

Ken Schroeder, although not a resident of Loves Park was the brain-child behind one of the city's largest community festivals, the Young at Heart Festival. Young At Heart came into being in 1972 as a way to better promote Loves Park through a community event that would draw large crowds to the city. In 1973 he was elected chairman of the festival committee, a position that Schroeder held for two years before resigning the post due to his increasing workload at Geri's. The festival is still held every year in Loves Park.

Over the years the company introduced new menu items like double hamburgers and cheeseburgers and fish filet sandwiches. They experimented with a sharp cheddar cheeseburger and a few other short lived items. Still they kept up with the competition, when McDonald's, introduced the Big Mac, Geri's would introduce the Big G and so on. In the 1960's Geri's was the preeminent fast-food chain in Rockford with many Geri's restaurants in Rockford while McDonald's only had two. Sandy's was another chain of drive inns that also had similarities to McDonald's with location just blocks away from the Geri's location on East State.

Big changes were in store in 1972 when plans were announced that the company was going nationwide and the cartoon character "Geri" was dropped and a new logo replaced it, the large imposing signs were being phased out. New stores were given a totally new look and featured indoor seating for 60 to 120 people, the food menu was revamped.

The first store to open with the new store format was at 7900 North Alpine Road in Loves Park. The older locations added some inside seating and outdoor patio furniture. The reason for this was changing tastes, lifestyles and increasing competition and the desire to lose the drive in image. The chain consisted of 14 stores in operation at the time and ten more stores were planned for Tampa, Sarasota and St. Petersburg, Florida and six units in Madison, Wisconsin. The franchise company was renamed Geri's System, Inc. and a holding company was formed for the corporate owned stores, Gerapco, short for Geri’s Operating System.

In 1975 the company changed advertising agencies from Howard Monk and Associates, Rockford to Mandabach and Simms, Inc. of Chicago. In this 1976  cleverly designed advertisement from one of the Madison, Wisconsin locations, the  new logo is clearly visible as well as the renamed Big G, the Triple Decker targeting  a more "grown up" family type crowd. The ad is showing the positives of the sandwich in a humorous light such as the Golden toasted center bun (cleverly separates the top from the bottom) or Savory sesame seed bun with no less than 151 seeds (count 'em).

Rockford West High School students Karen Lincoln and Diane Martindale take a lunch break at Geri’s in 1965.

Photo courtesy of Slade 1955

Geri's held many promotions and games over the years including free televisions, bicycles, coupons, celebrity appearances, free menu items and even free turkeys around Thanksgiving. Sponsors of many sport leagues and youth teams and heavily involved in supporting the communities they were located in. In 1973 McDonald's started expanding in Rockford when they opened a third location in Rockford. By 1980 McDonald's had six operating restaurants in Rockford with more planned.

Geri's would close its franchise company down in 1981. Several locations remained open as independent stores but eventually started to fade away without the franchise systems support. In September 1983 Tweed's, a restaurant featuring ribs and spirits opened in the remodeled former Geri's location on East State Street. The last Geri's was in Beloit, Wisconsin, which closed in 1999. There was an attempt to resurrect the Geri's nameplate in 2002 after an extensive rehab of the building and site in Beloit, and the location briefly saw life again in 2002. The restaurant has long since closed. In October of 2000, the blighted former Geri's restaurant on 15th Avenue was purchased for use as a Buddhist temple which is still in use today.

Quiz Time - Did you catch the misprint in the East State Street Grand Opening ad? The address listed for the location states 3605 instead of the correct address of 3509. The 5 was inserted in the wrong position and the 6 should have been flipped the other way to be a 9. Regardless people had no trouble finding Geri's.

The Phantom Regiment at Geri's in Loves Park 1969

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