Big Half Century: Deseret News

Big Half Century: Classic Utah Drive-In Celebrates 50 Years

Time almost stands still at Hires Big H, on the corner of 700 East and 400 South. History repeats itself daily, with made-to-order burgers, thick hand-cut fries and frosty root beer floats that have been menu mainstays since 1959. It's one of the few burger joints that still has a "car hop" service, where a server comes out to your car to take and deliver your order. There's also table service inside, but none of the fast-food style of ordering at the register.

This humble "hamburger and root beer stand," as it was called by founder Don C. Hale, has survived through 50 years of American dining. It's a classic that has withstood expanding national restaurant chains, the low-fat frenzy, the vegetarian movement and ethnic food trends. It's been written up in both Gourmet magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and over the years, customers have included Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Johnny Miller, Marvin Hamlisch, Jay Leno, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Robert Redford, Jon Huntsman Sr. and Larry H. Miller.

There have been a few changes. In 1959, a deluxe burger with lettuce, tomato and onions was 40 cents. Today, you'll pay $3.85 for a Hires Big H burger, a quarter-pound of ground beef heaven on a bun. The menu has expanded from mainly burgers to include veggie burgers, sandwiches and even salad. The saddest change, however, is the absence of Hale himself, who was a regular fixture at the restaurant, greeting customers, overseeing employees, sweeping floors, picking up trash, or whatever was needed to keep things running smoothly. Now age 91, Hale was forced to hang up his apron a year and a half ago due to poor health.

“He has worked so hard his whole life,” said his son, Mark Hale, a corporate officer in the business. “When you consider he was probably 11 when he started working in the family grocery store, he worked for 80 straight years.” It wasn't his idea to quit; his body simply wore out. One day at the restaurant, he fainted on the job, and the paramedics took him to the hospital.”As soon as he got better, he came back to work, and he fainted again,” said Mark Hale. “So he goes back to the hospital and stays a couple days. Then he says, ‘OK, take me back to work.’” And Mark told him, “Dad, fainting in your restaurant isn't really good for business. Maybe you ought to just come and visit, and let us run things.”

Hale's children want the company's 50th anniversary celebration to be a tribute to both their dad and their customers. “The business he got into really tapped his talent,” said Mark Hale. ‘He was a good businessman, he had good taste for good food, and was very service-oriented.”

Hale was born in Grantsville on Oct. 27, 1917. His father, Parley, moved the family to Idaho and then to Salt Lake City, in an attempt to earn a living. They rented a house on 500 South and 500 East, and built a small market. The store is still there today, although it's no longer owned by the Hale family.

By the time Hale opened his burger stand, he'd already served as one of Utah's youngest state legislators, sold uranium stocks, owned a used car business and was a partner in two taverns. Referring to his tavern ownership, he added, “I guess you could say I went from beer to root beer — probably a good switch for an LDS boy.”

During a vacation in California, he was impressed with Bob's Big Boy restaurants. He asked about acquiring a Utah franchise and was told that it was already taken. “This great disappointment turned into my greatest opportunity,” Hale wrote in his book. “I decided to build a hamburger and root beer drive in.” It was an era when drive-in burger stands were popping up all across America. Between 1945 and 1955, the number of cars in America doubled. This car-buying boom fueled the concept of dashboard dining in your new Ford or Chevy. You flashed your lights, rolled down your window and a “car hop” came out to take your order.

Hale had an advantage, in that he had access to fresh meats and produce from Hale's Market. A salesman from Hires approached him about serving the company's root beer. He asked if the vendor would provide him with a sign. “The sign he supplied advertised Hires root beer and because of that, my drive-in came to be known as Hires Drive-In.”

Hale created a cheeseburger, called the “Big H,” which was garnished with pink “fry sauce,” the ketchup-mayo concoction unique to Utah. The name stuck. “People began identifying the drive-in as the Big H, so we eventually added the name Big H,” Hale wrote in his book.

Hale's work ethic was legendary. Mark Hale remembers his dad getting up at 4 a.m. to put beans on to simmer for chili. On many nights, he would take his wife, Shirley, and their four kids for a car ride, “and Dad would stop by the restaurant to check on business. If he thought they needed help, he would stay and help out, while we sat with Mom in the car for what seemed like hours.”
Mark also recalls that his mother (who passed away in 2004) would go in early in the morning to Litza's to make pizza sauce or garlic bread. “She ran the family because my dad was so busy working.”

Within a decade, the block became what Don Hale called a “culinary corner.” In 1965, he opened Litza's Pizza on the east side of Hires, and in the 1970s, opened a steakhouse to the south. Less than a block to the east, Alva Greene opened Chuck-A-Rama in 1966, which became another Utah tradition. The Continental Baking Co. is another neighbor on the block. The aromas of sizzling steaks and burgers, French fries and onion rings mingle with the fragrance of baking pizza and bread, giving the parking lot an appetizing appeal. Litza's Pizza is still in business today and “doing great,” according to Mark Hale. “It has almost as faithful of a following as Big H.”

Valerie Phillips, “Big Half Century: Classic Utah Drive-In Celebrates 50 Years,” Deseret News, Wednesday, October 14, 2009.

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