Delaware twins’ quest for the perfect burger

Bill Brown credits icy shakes and juicy burgers for his “body by Jake.” BY BOB YESBEK
October 4, 2011

I have to admit I couldn’t quite figure out why Jake’s Hamburgers changed its name to Jake’s Wayback Burgers. What’s a wayback, and what does it have to do with me? Even more importantly, why do I dwell on these things to begin with?

Anyway, when co-owner Bill Brown and I met for our interview, he brought along a pile of corporate information, and suddenly there it was, buried on page 3: “That’s how they did it way back when, and that’s what they still do today.” Oh, I get it. Way back when.

I was prepared to dismiss it as marketing hype until I tried Jake’s vanilla milkshake. I hesitate to resurrect the whole taste memory thing, but in this space a few months ago I mourned the demise of Marriott’s Hot Shoppes, in particular the vanilla milkshake: A frosty stainless-steel cup of cold milk, ice cream and a spritz of vanilla syrup. Nirvana.

I took a sip of Jake’s version, and was transported back (way back, in fact) to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. As the carhop clamped the shiny metal tray to the driver’s-side window, I almost broke my little sister’s arm getting to my milkshake and Teen Twist sandwich. Survival of the fittest, you know. (Or is that the fattest?)

Bill Brown is eight minutes older than his identical twin Joe, and he took the responsibilities of his advanced age very seriously. He helped his working mom raise her two sons, and as kids growing up in Middletown, both boys loved to eat. Bill seized the opportunity to do as much creative cooking as it is possible for a 9-year-old to do – and he loved it. The boys graduated from high school and took jobs in the information technology industry, but they never stopped lamenting the fact that they couldn’t get a good burger in their tiny hometown.

The late ‘80s brought turmoil to the IT business, and their desire for a good hamburger became linked with a shared entrepreneurial longing to “do something for ourselves.” They contemplated opening a seafood store (oops … no burgers) and even a bowling alley. But last July while Bill was still working part time at Food Lion (and later as a manager), he and Joe resolved their burger crisis: They opened a Jake’s Hamburger franchise right there in Middletown. Barely 30 days later the corporation added “wayback” to the name, and the rest is burger ‘n’ shake history.

Bill’s take-charge attitude that grew out of being minutes older than his brother served him well as a Jake’s franchisee. It wasn’t long before new startups were sending their staff and management to the Middletown store to learn the ins and outs of the burger biz – and how they did it way back when. They even celebrated the opening of their second store in Rehoboth Beach with a hurricane! Fortunately, when the plywood was removed, everything was intact and on schedule.

The twins are perfectly matched. Joe is handy with the accounts and money matters, and Bill is on the line, inspecting orders, running the register, chatting up customers (and suspected food columnists). Their third partner, family friend Cory Armknecht, helps out at both stores, taking up the slack when things get busy.

Bill’s 17-year-old son Cody loves being the partners’ right-hand-man whenever he can. In fact, as Bill and I munched enchiladas in Rehoboth, young Cody was running the store. Nepotism aside, Bill is justifiably proud that his son earns the respect of the employees by getting his hands dirty just like dad. There is no better measure of a good owner than one who’s willing to perform every duty in the restaurant, from sweeping to cooking to emptying the grease traps (yuk).

Joe Brown is just as dedicated to his two daughters, and both brothers work hard doing what they have to do to give Cody and the girls a good life. And what better way to do that than to work at what you love.

Apparently they’re doing something right, because customers keep lining up at this unassuming burger joint on the highway that prides itself on doing things like they did – way back when.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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