An Era Ends With Passing Of Big H: Deseret News

The end of an era arrived last weekend when Don Hale, the hard-working owner of one of Utah's most famous restaurants, passed away in his home. 

Or maybe the era really ended three years ago when Hale finally retired. At the time, he was still working at his restaurant - Hires Big H - five days a week. 

At the age of 90.

"I'll never quit working," he told me when I interviewed him for a profile a few years earlier. 

What else was he going to do, relax? His mother Olive worked in the family grocery till she was 90.

So the millionaire owner worked like a hired hand, sweeping floors, picking up trash, filling in at the cash register, doting on customers, coaching employees and shoveling snow in the parking lot while puzzled customers looked on. 

Why is that old guy still working here? Isn't he the guy in the back of the menu?

Then he fainted at work one day. The paramedics revived him, and he was hospitalized for a couple of days. After recuperating at home briefly, he announced that he was ready to get back to work again, and no one could talk him out of it. 

Then the scene repeated itself. He fainted at the restaurant, the paramedics returned, he recovered, he returned to work again. No one could convince him to prop up his feet and take it easy. Then his son Mark appealed to his business instincts. He told him that fainting spells and paramedics were not good for business.

That did it. He quit, although he continued to show up at his restaurants 2-3 times a week for a burger and to look over the place. He did this until his death on Saturday evening at the age of 93.  

"I think he wore his heart out through hard work," said mark. "He gave everything he had."

Mark esteemed his father so highly that he literally wrote the book about him - "Opportunity Knocks Twice - Living More Successfully." Hale was known as a tough, driven businessman, a workaholic, brilliant Larry Miller-type personality without the basketball team, but his son thought that overshadowed his softer side. He was charitable and generous behind the scenes, and he worked hard and played hard, taking his families on trips around the world. He was active in church work and served as a state legislator and a Salt Lake City Councilman.

Most knew him as the businessman. If you haven't heard of Hires Big H. then you're a stranger here. They make the best hamburgers in the best world. The rest of the pretenders - In-n-Out Burger, Five Guys Burgers, SmashBurger, etc. - can sit down and shut up. 

The old man made the restaurant succeed through the sheer force of his personality. He opened the restaurant in 1959 and weathered the arrival of golden arches, Mexican food, pita sandwiches, salad bars, and dodgy economies. It became a Utah institution. The customers included Robert Redford, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Jay Leno, Danny Kaye, Johnny Miller, John Glenn, Roma Downey and every politician and pro athlete in the state.  

The food was so good that this tiny restaurant, an outdated, humble cinder-block building, was written about in the Wall Street Journal and Gourmet Magazine. It thrived for one reason: Quality, tasty food. The meat was selected and ground daily from Hire's own commissary and cooked while customers waited. They made their own buns in their own bakery. They even made their own fry sauce. I rode shot-gun with Hale one day as he drove around town to personally select produce for his burgers (I don't think he ever broke 25 miles per hour).

Like Miller, he micromanaged his business, preached customer service, collected and dispensed adages - "The best fertilizer for any business is the owner's footprints" - watched money carefully, produced a good product and worked long hours that kept him away from home. His wife Shirley, who died in 2004, raised their four kids; he raised the business. He lorded over it. He once showed an employee the proper way to sweep a floor. He was a taskmaster, but he inspired loyalty. Many of his employees stayed with him for decades. 

"He was a product of his time," says Mark. "He grew up in the Depression. He hated waste and he knew the value of work."

Mark said this as he worked at the cash register during Monday's lunch hour. He is a lawyer by training but, along with his brother Jon, he works in the family business. "Sorry to hear about your father," the customers told him as they paid their bills. 

"I don't know of anyone who packed as much into life as my father did," Mark said. "It was an honor to be his son. What a legacy he has left in terms of honesty and work ethic and humor and kindness and generosity."

Doug Robinson, "An era ends with passing of Big H," Deseret News, Monday, January 31, 2011. 

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