Never underestimate the power of small, local and juicy. When Hooters tried to buy and close the Westport Flea Market in 2006, restaurateur Joe Zwillenberg flipped the real estate transaction in his favor.
He purchased the Flea Market from Mel Kleb, Flea owner from 1965 to 2006, and told Hooter’s to cluck off. Neighborhood regulars returned to gastrointestinal bliss devouring around 200,000 flea burgers a year.
The secret behind the award-winning burgers isn’t the rub; it’s the meat. The Flea Market’s hamburger, taco meat and steak come exclusively from McGonigle’s Market, Kansas City’s crème de la crème butcher for a half century.
One of the next most popular items on the menu is the Meatball Grinder, which was voted one of the two best in the country by the New York Times. The grinder is made with homemade meatballs with mozzarella cheese topped with Joe Joe’s sauce and comes on a hoagie roll and served with French fries and pasta salad.
If you feel a little bloated after eating a half-pound burger or the five-pound Super Flea, get over it. Former Kansas City Mayor and third generation physician Richard Berkley has been eating flea burgers for the past 30 years and is nearing his 90th birthday in tip top health. Berkley, a Westport High School graduate, has been meeting his childhood buddies Henry Bloch (H&R Bloch) and Lester Siegel (Harzfeld’s Department Stores) every Monday for lunch at the Flea Market since 1981.
With the freshest meat and oldest money in town, the Flea Market doesn’t need much advertising but Zwillenberg still waves the best burger banner proudly and drives a mean burger car around town to rub ketchup in the wounds of other dives who just serve beer absorption burgers vs. culinary delights.
A BURGER JOINT WITH A SALTY HISTORY
Thirty years before The Flea hopped on the Westport scene, the building was a Kitty Clover Potato Chip factory until 1963.
Then in the 70s it became the the Flea Market with dozens of flea market booths selling kitsch and memorabilia. The most famous booth owner was serial killer Bob Berdella owner of a booth called Bob’s Bizarre Bazaar.
Bob spent his off hours torturing and killing young men in his home just a few blocks from the Flea Market. This earned him the name Bob the Kansas City Butcher. None of the bodies of the six male victims were ever found but Bob’s torture catalog and victim Polaroids were enough to send him to prison for life.
Strangely, Bob’s employment in one of the bar’s vendor booths has helped Zwillenberg’s business more than hurt it. Bob remains part of conversations at the Flea to this day. And yes all the burger meat absolutely comes from McGonigles.
Only three flea market booths remain open now. That piece of the businesses dried up after the launch of eBay in 1995, according to Zwillenberg. Booth space has been converted to party and meeting room rentals affording the Flea to host 500 events a year, including hosting the Missouri Tiger Club meeting each Tuesday.
Have it Your Way; But Order it Their Way
If you drop by for a burger, the ordering system is a bit odd. Go to the burger cashier to place your burger order and pay cash. Then you have a seat where a waitress will take your drink order, which you’ll pay for separately. Your name will be called on the loud speaker when your burger is ready for pick up so you can dress it at the condiment bar any fashion you please
Zwillenberg says it’s system that keeps everyone laser focused on what they do so your burger is cooked to perfection and your beer arrives in the coldest mug in Kansas City thanks to his new high dollar cooler machine.
Don’t whine, the system works and you get to choose from 44 beers on tap to boot.
The Westport Flea Market
817 Westport Rd.
Kansas City MO 64111