Scan the Seattle skyline for images of throwback, and plucked-from-the-'50s Dick’s Drive In is a gimme. Celebrating sixty this year, the vintage burger, fry and shake chain turns out to be exactly as old as it looks, and this Throwback Thursday, we look at the restaurant’s beginnings and what they are today.
On the one hand, much hasn’t changed — Dick’s still serves the primary three menu items it opened with, on the cheap — but this neighborhood treasure has also grown into much more than an antique face.
Preceding McDonalds by a year, the original Dick’s Drive In opened in Wallingford in 1954, and bank executives predicted they would never make a profit. It was a gamble — pedaling burgers for 19 cents, fries for 20 cents and shakes for 21 cents — but the then 29-year-old Dick Spady and cofounders Warren Ghormley and "Tom" Thomas were hopeful.
Their goal was to “serve fresh, high quality food at low prices with instant service” and they believed Seattleites wanted a place to park and consume what was fast becoming the new American meal — and they were right.
An immediate success, the first Dick’s, located a stone’s throw from the University of Washington, swiftly became “THE place in Seattle to meet your friends, show off mom and dad's new car, or just trade pocket change for a quick bite to eat,” according to their website.
Dick's Drive In counter; photo credit: Bjorn Giesenbaur/Flickr
The company went on to open the Broadway store in 1955, the Holman Road store in 1960, the Lake City store in 1963 and the Queen Anne store in 1974. While many successful burger joints were going national, Spady, Ghormley and Thomas were “family men,” according to the Dick’s website, who wanted to keep their growth local.
Highlights in the last 6 decades include the funneling of customers into one line in the late 1950s (before, you had to wait in separate lines for burgers and fries), swapping orange soda for Diet Coke on the menu in the early 1970s, and adding two new burgers to the menu in 1971: the Dick’s Special (with lettuce, mayo and chopped pickles), and the Dick’s Deluxe (the Special with two beef patties and melted cheese).
In 1991 the Spady family bought out the other two co-founders, and finally in 2011, the chain spread to open its most recent branch in Edmonds. But the sixth location wasn't chosen by the Dick’s leadership alone; it won out in an online poll of over 115,000 voters, and it broke past company sales records with over 800 guests the first day.
A year later, the restaurant’s passionate following turned out again to distinguish Dick’s as home of America's Most "Life Changing Burger" in Esquire Magazine.
Seattle’s original fast food giant, Dick’s speaks for itself in its cuisine and lovable culture, but the family-run chain also makes philanthorpy and caring for its employees top priorities. All Dick’s employees receive at least $10.25 an hour to start and 100% employer-paid health insurance if they work at least 24 hours per week (which, according to the website, 75% of employees do.)
A year ago when the minimum wage debate was escalating, Jim Spady, company vice president and son of president Dick Spady (now 91), told Thanh Tan at The Seattle Times, “Among [my father’s] special rules is you should make decisions for the long run so long as you can survive in the short run. The No. 1 job of a business is to make a profit. If you don’t, it’s not worth anything. No. 2 thing is to take care of your people. They’re the key to success,” he said. “So once you’ve taken care of your people and you’re making a profit, you should make an investment in your community. And if you have a healthy community, you’ll have a good business in the long run.”
Queen Anne Dick's; photo credit: Curtis Cronn/Flickr
In addition to contributing over $1.2 million in employee education scholarships and $500,000 to local charities (including Fare Start, Compass Housing Alliance and Mary’s Place), Dick’s has won a range of do-gooder distinctions throughout its tenure, including the Seattle Business magazine 2011 Family Business Award for Community Involvement, the Association of Washington Business 2011 Community Service Legacy Award and the United Way of King County Gold Award from 1983-1987 for outstanding citizenship.
What’s next for Dick’s? More Seattle area locations, added menu options, more community service work? Only time will tell. In the meantime, Jim Spady writes on the company website, "We're honored that people keep coming back to make memories and to enjoy great food."