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The Dick's Drive-In Story: Then & Now

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<span class="credit">[Photo: <a href="http://suzi-pratt.com/">S. Pratt</a>]</span>
[Photo: S. Pratt]

In honor of Eater Burger Week 2013, we sit down and chat with local burger magnates, the Spady's. Specifically Jim Spady, the son of Dick's Drive-In founder Dick Spady, and his son, Saul. The two generations of burger nostalgia were also kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at the daily operations of the original Dick's in Wallingford.

[Photos: S. Pratt]

When Dick Spady opened the first Dick's Drive in on January 28, 1954, the thought that it would still be relevant to a vibrant city nearly 60 years later was a mere dream. But here we are, just about 60 years later, and Dick's is just as popular as ever. What's the secret? Dick is now 89-years old and the only surviving partner of the original three. His son Jim Spady, the company's Vice President, is joined by his son Saul Spady, one of the marketing masterminds behind Dick's, for this Q&A about history, burgers, why the Queen Anne location is the only sit-down restaurant, and how a cash-only business that hasn't changed its menu in 30 years is still thriving.

Because you probably haven't told it enough, tell me the story of how Dick's came to be.

My dad is part of the greatest generation. He turned 18 right before Pearl Harbor and he served in the Navy in World War 2. He met his good friend Warren Ghormley, who then became one of his two business partners when he started Dick's Drive-In years later, in Hawaii. He came back from World War 2, went to college (Oregon State) on the G.I. Bill, and got a degree in business. When he got out of college he was called up for the Korean War. So, he graduates in 1950, the Korean War starts, he gets called up, and he goes to Japan where he was a commissary officer in charge of feeding a lot of people — about 10,000 troops at this airbase in Japan. That's where he gets introduced to this idea of feeding large numbers of people.

He comes back from the Korean War and he starts working commercial real estate in Portland. He goes to a restaurant one day, a little cafe, and the guy behind the counter opens the fridge and it's filled with hamburger patties, and my dad says, "How long does it take you to sell all of those hamburger patties?" The guy says, "Oh, we go through that and one twice as big every day." That's when my dad first thought hamburgers could be a great business. He didn't have a lot of money. He was the first in his extended family to go to college. The restaurant business is relatively inexpensive to get into as your first big business, so he wrote a proposal to his buddy Warren, who was in Seattle, and said that they should start a restaurant business.

Warren at the time was working in the insurance business and his wife was the secretary for a professor of dentistry at the University of Washington, who would later become the third partner. Somebody he knew had been down to Los Angeles and had been to one of the McDonald brothers restaurants...and this was when McDonald's was two restaurants owned by two brothers named McDonald. This was 1953, before I-5 and all that. So, basically this guy says if the partners wanted to do a hamburger restaurant, they should check out the McDonald brothers operation. So, they drove to L.A. and they wanted to pay one of the owners to let them inside and look around and see how the whole operation worked. The McDonald brothers weren't interested. But another burger operation did allow them to come in — I think they paid him $50 to let them work there for a day to learn the business. And so based on that, they came back to Seattle and put together their plan and they tried to get financing and nobody would lend them any money so they all put in about $5,000 for a stake of $15,000, which was a fair amount of money at the time. Funny story. When my dad quit his real estate job down in Portland, he said, "I quit. I'm going to try to start a restaurant business in Seattle and by the way, would you mind lending me some money?" and the guy did! Dad was very entrepreneurial. People around him believed in his success.

dicks1.jpg[Photo: S. Pratt]

So, they tried to put this thing together, they didn't have very much money, they couldn't afford to buy land. The 45th street lot was for lease, but the owner would not build on it, so they'd have to find someone else to loan them money to build a restaurant on land that they didn't own, which was very difficult.

They ended up finding a contractor out of Alaska who couldn't work in the winter there because the weather was too harsh, so he'd come to Seattle in the winters to do odd jobs. Dad proposed to him to build a restaurant on the leased land and the guy ultimately told my dad, "My insurance guy thinks it's too risky and my attorney says I shouldn't touch it, my accountant doesn't believe it will pencil out, but you know, if I listened to them all the time I might be working for them in six weeks, so I'm going to do it!" So, on a wing and a prayer, they're able to open the restaurant and it makes money right from the beginning.

Tell me about your staff.

We try to hire the the very best people we can, which means paying the highest wages and best benefits. It gives us better service and I think our customers appreciate how well we treat our employees. We have a $22,000 scholarship program. So, if you come work for us, we'll pay your way to a community college for the first two years and then $8,000 towards your tuition if you go to the UW or someplace else. Education is really important to my parents, always has been. This is something we do for our employees.

The 45th Street location was obviously the first. What came next?

The next one was on Capitol Hill, our restaurant on Broadway was opened a year later. And then in 1960, the Holman Road location in north Ballard. Then, Lake City in 1965 and then briefly we had a Bellevue store from 1967 to 1974 which was not successful. We closed it in 1974 and opened our Queen Anne restaurant. That was all the restaurants we had until just two years ago when we opened our newest restaurant in Edmonds.

Do you have plans to keep expanding?

I think so. It took us a long time to become debt-free and we hope to pay the Edmonds restaurant off and then we'll open a new restaurant. We're hoping within five years we'll be in the position to begin the process of selecting the next site. We promised the people east and south that if Edmonds was successful, then they'd get a Dick's eventually. So, the next restaurant will either be the eastside or south Seattle-ish, perhaps as far south as Federal Way.

Would you return to Bellevue?

It's a possibility. Land is expensive there, but if we had a good opportunity, we'd certainly look at that.

Do you have across the board best-sellers, or is it different by neighborhood?

Our Deluxe is our biggest seller, followed by our cheeseburger. We sell a lot of those. On Broadway, people tend to order more mini-meals, so they just want fries and a drink or just a milkshake. In Edmonds, we get families going to a soccer match and they're buying burgers, fries, shakes. The younger people are buying two Deluxe, a cheeseburger, two fries, a shake. It's just amazing how young people can put that food away!

Saul: I live on Capitol Hill and I have friends who tell me they've gone to Dick's four times in a single day.

Where does Dick Spady currently live?

My dad used to live two houses from the office (across from the 45th St. location), but he lives in a retirement home now with my mom downtown.

How involved is your dad in the business?

Well, he's the president. He makes all the key decisions. He could fire me tomorrow if he wanted to! We meet once a week and my brothers and I sit with my mom and dad and we go over all the major issues. Dad makes all major decisions, but he let's us take care of the details for him.

dicks2.jpg[Photo: S. Pratt]

How did you get roped into this business? Do you actually love the burger industry or was it an obligation?

Dad started the restaurant three years before I was born, almost four years. So I grew up on burgers. We lived on Capitol Hill at the time and on Sundays we'd always get to go to the restaurant after church and have our burger. I can remember those days and those burgers. Dad would take me on his rounds sometimes, which was special. When I was old enough, I worked at the restaurant. I went to college out of state, got a law degree, practiced law for awhile. I got back into the business when the partners in the late 80s wanted to sell the business. They just wanted to cash out, but they couldn't sell the business without my dad's okay and he didn't want to sell.

It was natural for us to try and buy them out, although it was difficult to do because our family only owned a third and there wasn't enough assets to borrow enough money to pay them what they thought it was worth. We basically borrowed as much money as we could from the bank based on our real estate and other stuff. In August 1991, that transaction closed and the Spady family became the sole owner of Dick's Drive-Ins.

How come Queen Anne is the only sit-down restaurant?

One of the reason's we had trouble in Bellevue is because Herfy's, a very strong competitor which is no longer around, built a restaurant right next to ours with indoor seating. And because land was expensive there, we didn't have enough room to add indoor seating and the whole industry was converting to indoor seating. It really hurt our sales and we couldn't respond. Dad decided it would be better to buy a bigger parcel, which is the Queen Anne property, and build a restaurant with indoor seating than try to duke it out with Herfy's when we had a competitive disadvantage. When we opened Queen Anne, it was our highest-performing restaurant for the first couple of years. But then, as all the restaurants added indoor seating it wasn't novel anymore. That's when the whole classic burger craze hit — Happy Days, American Graffiti came out — and everyone got nostalgic for the old classic burger joints and of course we had four of those and nobody else had any except for some of the old Herfy's and some of the old Dag's. And the whole nostalgia for the whole old-fashioned thing has only grown over the years.

Is that a big reason why you're not adding burgers with crazy toppings?

We already sell a lot of burgers just the way we make them. If you do too many things, it slows you down and probably the quality isn't as good. Hats off to people who can have 50 different options and do each one perfectly and super fast. But we find we already make a burger most people like and we can do it pretty inexpensively and very quickly and that's been our system for a long, long time and it still works.

Saul: I challenge you to find a burger joint that can offer a quarter-pounder with bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions for less than $8.

Jim: There are a lot of gourmet burger places that make great burgers, but they're at least twice as expensive and take much longer to make. It's not the same thing. It is a trade-off and you have to decide what you want.

I know Bill Gates is notorious for loving Dick's burgers.

And Paul Allen.

What have been some other celebrity sightings?

Saul: Macklemore lives three blocks from the drive-in and those on Broadway recognize him. Sir Mix-a-Lot, the lead singer for The Fray, (Husky basketball star) Jon Brockman. Bumbershoot is well-known for serving our burgers in their VIP section; we don't partner with them at all, but they go and buy 500 burgers from Queen Anne and hand it out in their VIP section. It's a tradition every year.

Fawn Spady (Jim's wife): Husky coach Steve Sarkisian does late-night runs for his staff after practice. At the Jimmy Buffett concert at Key Arena last summer he was singing Cheeseburger in Paradise (Jimmy, not Steve) and threw Dick's Drive-Ins into the lyrics and everyone went crazy!

What's changed in almost 60 years?

Very little. Our whole business model is to do a few things very well and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. So, the hamburgers and cheeseburgers are exactly the same as they were 60 years ago. Milkshakes, the same. Exactly the same. The French fries are almost exactly the same — hand-cut from fresh potatoes — but we had to change the oil when the city said no trans-fats. We had to switch from vegetable oil to a sunflower oil. That was a little tricky for awhile, because it does slightly change the taste, but most customers took it in stride. We added Diet Coke about 30 years ago.

Saul: It was a pretty aggressive move.

Jim: About the same time, we added our quarter-pound burger and our quarter-pounder with cheese, the Dick's Deluxe. And then also the special burger, which is a smaller Deluxe without cheese. And that's it. I like to say we're a North Star business in the sense that we're one of the things that doesn't change in a world that's constantly changing. All this new stuff is happening, but there is something that ties Seattle to its past at least going back 60 years and that's Dick's Drive-In.

· All Burger Week 2013 Coverage [~ESEA~]
· Dick's Drive-In [Facebook]
· Dick's Drive-In [Official Site]