Big H Still Hot

National and Regional Acclaim

Big 'H' still hot
Desert Morning News, January 25, 2004
Doug Robinson

Hires' Hale working hard at 86

Down at Hires Big H Restaurant - home of the state's legendary burger - you can still see the old man working. He shovels snow in the parking lot. Sweeps floors. Picks up trash.

He should be at home with his feet propped up in front of the fire or lying on a beach in Maui, but this morning he braved the snow and icy temperatures to make deliveries to the restaurant.

Why is that old guy still working, customers ask waitresses? Isn't that the guy on the back of the menu?

Don Hale is a multimillionaire. He could hire someone to sweep the floor and seat customers, but, ever the child of the Depression, work is what he knows and loves.
"I'll never quit working," he says. Did we mention he's 86 years old?

"There are many rules for success, but none of them work unless you do."

Right from the top we should also mention that Hale loves adages, which he has collected over the years from books, wise friends and his own brain. He sprinkles his conversation with quotes to explain almost everything he does or believes. He's a walking Bartlett's. He quotes continually from Lee Iacocca, author Dan Ludlow and various leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has collected 20 pages of his favorite one-liners.

"Everybody should have three things: They should have something to do, someone to love and something to always look forward to."

Hale's work is something to do, his large family is someone to love and his travels are something to look forward to.

Today there is something to do, and he couldn't be happier about it. Work has been his life's passion. Hale was still working six days a week until about a year ago when family urged him to cut back. He compromised to three days a week.

He started Hires Big H Restaurant in 1959. Since then it has beaten back all comers in a highly competitive, cutthroat field - national fast-food franchises, health food, pizza, salad bars, Mexican food, Ronald McDonald, Jared, Happy Meals. Wendy's opened up across the street and quickly went away.

Hale's original little restaurant, in its modest gray cinderblock home on 700 East and 400 South, has become a Utah institution. He never even advertised; his customers did that for him.

"New business is how you take care of old business."

Robert Redford has eaten there. So have Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Jay Leno, Danny Kaye, Johnny Miller, John Glenn, Roma Downey and almost every senator, governor, mayor and Utah Jazz player you can name. Is there anyone in Utah who hasn't eaten in this place? Out-of-towners show up at Hires straight from the airport. "Somebody told us about it as soon as we landed," they explain. During the Olympics it was almost standing room only.

"We were in London once and someone asked my dad, 'Aren't you Mr. Hires?' " says Nancy Marks, Hale's daughter who waitresses at the restaurant.

"You don't have a second chance to make a good first impression."

Name another locally owned burger joint that has been written up in the Wall Street Journal and Gourmet Magazine.

This one little burger stand nets $1 million a year (and that doesn't count what Hale brings in from carbon-copy restaurants in Midvale and West Valley and Litzas Pizzas next door). Ask him to explain the restaurant's success, Hale sounds like a commercial: "It's the quality," he says.

OK, let's cut to the rest of the unpaid advertisement. This is no assembly-line burger house. They select and grind their beef daily at their own commissary and cook it while you wait rather than precook it and store it in a drawer. They make many of their own salad dressings, chili, garlic bread and onion rings, and hand pick and cut their own fries, lettuce and tomatoes. They make their own fry sauce and, until recently, had their own buns custom-made by Hale's Bakery, which was owned by a relative. Before closing its doors last week, Hale's gave the recipe to Dunford Bakers, which will provide the buns to Big H, and even showed them how to make them.

All this notwithstanding, there's another reason for the restaurant's success. "It's my dad," says Mark Hale, Don's son who has a law degree and helps oversee the business, along with his brother, Jon. "He's amazing."

By any standard that would seem to be the case. Having survived poverty and the Depression, he has dabbled in everything - used cars, a stock brokerage firm, a grocery store, taverns and restaurants. He has traveled the world and been elected to two political offices - as a two-term state legislator, beginning at age 25, and then as a Salt Lake City Council member, at 73.

"I can't believe all the wonderful things that have happened to a little boy from Grantsville," Don Hale says.

"There are two kinds of people - those who think they can and those who think they can't; and they are both right."

Grinding through the gears of his tiny pickup truck, Hale drives to the west side of town to pick out produce for his restaurants. He is dressed in a lavender shirt, red tie, green jacket and beige jeans. Hale rarely tops 25 mph - there are people in the world who can run this fast - but he is oblivious to the cars blowing by him.

At the loading dock, the groceries are stacked and waiting for him. Earlier in the morning he made a series of phone calls to compare prices, recording them on a slip of paper in two columns. It is a decades-old routine for a man who began with almost nothing and still operates that way.

"Look," he says, pointing to the paper, "I saved $3 on these tomatoes." When he is finished he proudly notes, "I saved a total of $40 to $50 this morning."

Not only that, but he also didn't have to pay for a truck and driver, and he picked out the best produce.

"He's is a natural businessman," says Mark.

Hale's father, Parley, was a carpenter, but he was unable to work for extended periods of time during because of asthma. The family, after moving from Grantsville to Idaho and then to Salt Lake City, opened Hale's Market in a converted garage next to their home to supplement their income during the Depression.

While working full time, Don Hale graduated from the University of Utah in business management - "I made up the part of the class that made the top half possible," he likes to say - but he got his own practical education in running a business at Hale's Market, working alongside his mother, Olive, who is reputed to have been a savvy businesswoman. (She worked until her death at 91.)

The story goes that during Hale's frequent trips to California he fell in love with the burgers at Bob's Big Boy restaurants. He tried to buy his own franchise but was refused. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. He bought property that would prove to be on an ideal intersection for a restaurant, razed existing apartments and built Hires.

Then he set out to make perfect food. Over the years, he patronized restaurants around the West, searching for good food. When he found something tasty, he offered the restaurant $100 to buy the recipe.

"We went to Denver on the train once to find a salad dressing and spaghetti sauce," recalls Nancy.

After another tortoise-paced drive across town, Hale steers the small pickup into the restaurant parking lot and slowly climbs out the door. Employees unload the truck as Hale stoops to pick up a cigarette butt on the walkway and tosses it into a trash can.

"Nothing escapes his attention," says Nancy. "He is a taskmaster. Sometimes employees don't understand that it's his business."

Hale lords over his domain. He's so fussy, he's been known to show employees the proper way to sweep a floor.

Recently, he spied a couple of his waitresses talking to one another while customers were waiting to have their orders taken. "If you think I'm going to let that go. . .," he says. He confronts employees who waste food. "How much is that going to cost me?"

"I started with a $200 inventory," he says. "Things were tight. It's hard to change. That's why I always watch everything. They (employees) would probably like to get me out of here; I probably make them nervous."

"The best fertilizer of any business is the owner's footprints."

Hale coaches his employees, all in his quest for the perfect restaurant: The customer is never an interruption. Never say no to the customer. Follow the customer to his table. Waitresses are supposed to greet the customer within one minute of being seated.

"He is definitely a perfectionist," says Nancy. When she was in high school, her father woke her in the middle of the night once because she forgot to pick up the bathroom after she was finished. She had to get out of bed and complete the chore at 2 a.m.

"Being successful in business is easy - hire the right people, communicate with them, motivate them, reward them as they perform."

There is a lot of turnover in this business, but many employees have stayed - the chef and manager have been there more than 30 years, and one of the waitresses has been there 20 years.

Before taking over for the lunchtime shift seating customers, Hale climbs into his Audi and drives a few blocks north at the breakneck speed of 35 to see his wife, Shirley, who has Alzheimer's and was placed in a care center a year ago. He takes a guest up the back stairs of the facility and into a room where "Shirl," as he calls her, sits with other women who are singing along with show tunes that are playing in the background. Introduced to a stranger, Shirley takes the stranger's hand and kisses it. Hale's eyes well up with tears.

"She's a saint," he says. "You should have seen her before. Somebody asked Ross Perot once what he attributed his success to, and he said he wouldn't know how successful he was until he saw how his family turned out. Well, my kids all turned out great, and it's due to their mother."

Nancy confirms this. "He was always gone," she says. Shirley ran the household and raised the four children - Jon, Mark, Lisa and Nancy. In the early days of his business, Hale worked at the market part of the day and Hires the rest of the time, which meant getting home just in time to help the kids with homework before they went to bed.

Says Mark, "I lived with him my whole life, and he's still amazing to me, fascinating - his work ethic, his judgment, his wisdom. I love my dad. He worked so hard his whole life."

"My father's only regret is that he wishes he had spent more time with my mom when he could," says Nancy.

 "Take care of the business, so the business can help take care of you."

Hale did slow his workaholic pace after a friend confronted him early in his career. Hale wasn't always a practicing member of his church. He owned a couple of taverns for a time, and he kept the family market open on Sundays - it was their most profitable day. Then one day a friend challenged him to close the shop on Sunday.

"You may take in less, but you'll make more," the friend promised.

Hale took the man's advice. "We seemed to make more than we did when we were open on Sundays," says Hale.

Hale has held a variety of positions in his LDS Church ward over the years. He also broke away from work enough to run for office. In 1943, at the age of 25, he became one of the youngest state legislators in history. In 1990, at 72, he served as a member of the City Council.

Now in his so-called golden years, he has slowed and mellowed only a little.

"I'm not afraid to die; I just don't want to be there when it happens."

A few years ago he took up piano again and began taking lessons. He reads books constantly, taking careful notes as he goes. He visits Shirley regularly. He takes his family on vacations, his treat. Even during his prime working years, he took his family on long trips, a practice he has continued by taking his children and his children's children on trips around the world - Alaska, the Holy Land, ocean cruises, Greece, England, Holland, Italy, Bermuda, New York, Bahamas, Turkey, Crete.

"He is a riot on vacation," says Mark. "He's very conservative with money when he's home, but he spends it on vacation and wears us all out. He's the first one up and the last one to bed. He packs the day with activities."

"The first part of your life should be spent in the accumulation of your estate. The second part should be spent in the enjoyment of it."

Hale has always lived modestly. He has lived in the same house for 55 years, and he is fanatical about making sure the lights are turned off.

Waste not, want not.

"Like so many who were raised in the Depression, he saw how life worked and learned how to survive and make money and preserve money," says Mark. "He never spent money if he didn't have it. He probably had a deep pocket when we were little, but we never knew it. He lived well below his means."

He had his weaknesses: A nice car in the garage and a diamond ring. When he was young, he saw a wealthy man come into the store once sporting a diamond on his finger and vowed that if he ever had money he would buy one himself. Years later, he did just that, but then considered it too flashy to wear and gave it to his father to wear. "Now I wear it because it means something," he says.

Taking his leave from Shirley, he makes the slow drive back to the restaurant. He checks the parking lot to make sure the snow is cleared - "Cost me $3,000 to plow this," he notes. Once inside the door, he straps on a green apron and begins greeting and seating customers.

"I enjoy work," he says. "And I think this store runs better because of me."

With that, he leads another customer to a table and begins the old job of serving another good meal.

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