Deseret News, March 4, 1999
If you want to have a successful family restaurant, the formula would seem to be simple:
- Serve excellent food.
- Give excellent service.
- Keep the prices down.
Many restaurants never learn that and go out of business. But 'Hires Big H' knows the recipe by heart. And this year, the little eatery that caters to families is turning 40. There are four outlets now -- in Salt Lake City, Midvale, West Valley and Provo. But the original flagship spot on 400 South opened back when people said 'pizza pie' instead of 'pizza' and 'french-fried potatoes,' not 'fries.' Over the years, the language has changed. The fashions have changed. Even the kids have changed. But the burgers, fries and frosty mugs at Hires haven't.
'Our secret isn't much of a secret,' says owner Don Hale. 'We're strictly a quality business. We have our own commissary. We slice our own fries from fresh potatoes. We make our own onion rings. Every morning, I climb out of bed early to go bid on fresh produce.' In short, Hale actually does all the things Dave Thomas only 'pretends' to do on his Wendy's television commercials. For those interested in the Hires history, a digest version (pardon the expression) is printed on the menus. Hale, it seems, grew up in the grocery business. The family had a little store in their Grantsville home to help make ends meet. 'We were the poorest people on the block,' Hale recalls today.
Selling meat and potatoes in a grocery store got young Don wondering what it would be like to cook them as well. On a family trip to California, he developed a taste for 'Bob's Big Boy' burgers ('The taste lingered in my mouth. I thought they had the greatest hamburger I'd ever tasted.') But Big Boy and Hale could never strike a deal -- a blessing now, he says. It opened up an opportunity for the Hales to link arms with Hires root beer in what was to become a legendary duet. 'Every governor has been here over the years,' Hale says. 'A lot of recognizable people from the community eat in their cars to avoid the attention.' (The carhops, of course, are a novelty draw at Hires.) Today, Hale is 81. But if you drop by Hires at lunchtime, you'll see him on duty -- taking orders, chatting with old friends, making new ones and, well, keeping an eye on things. 'I run a tight ship,' he says. 'I'm a stickler for cleanliness.'
And because of the bonus packages he offers and a generous pay scale, people stay with him. Shem Merritt, for instance, has been a Hires man for 32 years now. He began at age 13. Others have made the business their own as well. 'I have an expression,' says Hale, 'When it comes to money, a little more means a lot, but when you have a lot, a lot more means little.' Behind such folksy wisdom, of course, Hale is a dry-eyed, savvy businessman. He has had to be, just to fend off the burger chains. And last year, the Hires Big H did more than $2 million in business.
Things are booming.
And the reason for the Hires bonanza can be found in a word from the first paragraph: family focus. Hale not only runs a family business for families, but he sees his own family as the most important business of all. He and wife Shirley love to travel and love their family, so they often take their family with them. Not long ago, 16 members of the Hale clan packed up and headed for Hawaii. They've also spirited three grandkids away to the Holy Land. 'I spent the first part of my life accumulating,' says Hale. 'I'm spending the second part enjoying. Max Lewis once said everyone should have three things in life: something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to. I've had that. And for me, now, the greatest song ever written was 'Thanks for the Memories.'' If that sounds like a swan song, however, guess again. Hale has no plans to retire. He's having too good a time working. And his daughter Nancy, whose face is as familiar at Hires Big H as Don's own, takes heart from that. 'He's dedicated,' she says. 'The only time he's gone is when he's ill or on vacation. I came here 12 years ago to help out as a carhop. But when I saw what this place does, I stayed.' Staying power. It's been a hallmark at Hires. The owners have it; their employees have it. And, after 40 years, their customers have shown their share of it as well.
A 50-year Golden Anniversary would appear to be just around the corner for Hires Big H. And you can bet that bash will have plenty of good food, good times and a fine family atmosphere.