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Dick Spady, Founder of Dick's Drive-In, Passes Away at 92

Spady created a Seattle institution in Dick's Drive-In.

Dick's Drive-In [Facebook]

It’s a sad day for Seattle, as Dick Spady has passed away at the age of 92. The founder of what became an institution in Seattle, opened his first Dick’s Drive-In at the age of 30, on January 28, 1954.

Seattle residents and visitors who may have learned about the burger haven from Sir Mix-a-Lot or Macklemore line up outside the six locations from 10:30am until 2am. The menu is small, and most Seattlites know it by heart and can argue the merits of a Special versus a Deluxe, or explain that there are no substitutions. Most can tell a story about rushing to the restaurant moments before it closed and unwrapping the paper on the final orange paper-wrapped cheeseburger of the night.

Back in the early 1950s, before employees calculated totals in their heads and the iconic lit-up signs announced the greatness to be found, Dick Spady had just returned from the Korean War. There, he had learned what it looked like to feed thousands of people at his airbase in Japan. Living in Portland at the time, he wandered into a cafe that served piles and piles of hamburgers out of a small space daily, and realized that they could be a great business. Pairing up with an old friend, they began the process of starting the first Dick’s, on 45th in Wallingford.

Locations in Capitol Hill, then Holman Road, then Lake City followed. Most people might not realize, but a brief 7-year stint in Bellevue occurred between 1967 and 1974. Upon closing it, they opened the Queen Anne restaurant — the only one with an indoor seating area.

Besides a burger experience that was once named the "Most Life-Changing Burger Joint" by Esquire (in 2012), Dick’s became known for their great employment practices and incredible community involvement.

In 2000, I dropped off a resume at a Dick’s while attending Ballard High School. I was lucky to hand it off to the Store Manager, who had been with the company for seven years at the time and was so enthusiastic about the store, he dropped everything to interview me right then and there. One of the questions he asked was about my skill with mental addition. They had recently changed over to automated registers, having previously relied on cashiers to add up totals quickly and in their heads.

The most important numbers I knew were that they paid $8.25 per hour at a time when the minimum wage had just recently cracked $6.00. They also offered around $10K for college tuition if employees worked part time while attending school, had health care and 401K plans, and promoted only from within. The Store Manager emphasized this last point heavily, noting that he would never ask someone to mop out a walk-in cooler without having performed the task himself hundreds of times (a point that remains relevant no matter what line of work we’re discussing).

Working at Dick’s, there was always a sense that we were part of a fun club of people. High school friends visited constantly, we were regularly offered money for the iconic blue-and-orange t-shirts that were our uniforms, and I got a sense of pride in getting the angle of my kerchief head-topper just right.

The Spadys stopped by plenty, and I remember meeting Dick Spady and shaking his hand, having him thank me for providing great service to our customers. I have no doubt that I became extra efficient and helpful immediately afterward.

Now, 16 years later, Dick’s continues to lead the pack in providing a great working environment for its employees. Wages are high, they offer paid community service and childcare assistance, and educational scholarships have gone up to $25,000 over four years for employees who work part time. Treating employees like family is not just lip service, and that legacy is part of who Dick Spady was and who the Spadys are to their customers and community.

If you want a full list of awards and honors earned over his career, you’ll have to sit awhile to absorb it all. Community involvement was a great passion for the founder, who encouraged the public to get involved in policy decisions through Countywide Community Forums. According to the Seattle Times, a 2012 Mayoral Proclamation for "Dick’s Drive-In Day" made mention of the over $1 million the family donated "to support local homeless charities, disaster relief efforts around the world, and public engagement efforts in Seattle, King County, and now statewide."

Dick's spokeswoman Jasmine Donovan tells KOMO News that well-wishers are invited to make a donation to a homeless services charity in Spady's honor.