27 Feb Dicks Drive-In – A Seattle Institution for Fifty Years
It’s hard not to get nostalgic bombing around my hometown, Seattle, in the same car that I learned to drive in 17 years ago. The steering wheel is looser now, almost squirrelly. Many of the passenger doors don’t quite open and the knob falls off the sunroof turn handle when I twist it. Though I hardly remember the street names anymore, I automatically know where to turn, how to negotiate the lanes and traffic, seeking out my favorite old haunts. There is a familiarity in everything – the quality of light here, the pungent scents of spring and the local landmarks that, despite time, have managed to remain unchanged since my departure over 15 years ago.
One of the places I can find with my eyes closed, pointing my Dad’s little VW Rabbit and making the turns by rote, is Dick’s Drive In. As a classic Seattle institution since 1954, Dick’s is celebrating its Fifty Year anniversary this year. Not much has changed here since those humble beginnings on a wintry January day. At the original location in the Wallingford neighborhood, the orange sign and modest structure are original, tiled in pink, blue and beige and topped with a chromium service counter. You can still get crispy, hand cut French Fries with their skins left on, the little paper baggie soaking up any extra grease. The shakes are still made by hand as well, whether Vanilla, Strawberry or Chocolate, all scooped by one of the kids behind the counter. There have been only minor changes to the menu since the original days when Elvis tunes and hulking Chevys filled the parking lot. In 1971 they added the “Dick’s Special” and the “ Dick’s Deluxe” to the original line up of Hamburger and Cheeseburger, fries and shakes. The new options offered an updated flavor with lettuce, chopped pickle and mayo on the Special and an extra patty and cheese to the Deluxe. Aside from these minor additions, the only other menu change in 50 years has been the swapping of Orange soda for Diet Coke when it was first introduced to the market many, many moons ago.
Despite the limited menu, Dick’s has other great qualities which have ensured survival since opening the first location – changing with the times only in its adapting of community oriented contributions and relationships. The founders, Dick Spady, Warren Ghormley and Doc Thomas, have kept the number of restaurants to five locations around the Seattle area, opting against a national franchise and all that that entails. Only the Queen Anne location offers seating, standing as the final addition to the line-up in 1974. The drive-in nature of the other four keeps the overhead considerably lower than a dine-in establishment. This quality provides the opportunity to pass the savings benefits on to employees and customers alike.
When Dick’s originally opened, the cost of a hamburger was 19-cents. A competitive price compared to the 30-cent going rate at other burger places. It lured the youth, out for a spin in the family car on a Friday night or playing hooky on school day afternoons. The tradition stuck and even though the prices have risen a little, the modern day 2-dollar Deluxe still puts the regular fast food franchises to the taste and value test, winning hands down across Seattle. Employing a youthful crowd of students and the like, Dick’s also offers generous salaries and competitive benefits packages that put McDonalds and other fast food chains to shame. In addition to paid vacations for full and part time employees, a 401-k savings plan, paid time off for community service and health insurance for all who work over 24 hours a week, Dick’s also respects the educational goals of their employees. Since1994 the company has offered scholarships totaling up to $10,000 over four years to the largely college age employees. Not only that, they have cool uniforms. Comprised of white apron, old school paper hat and orange t-shirts touting the nostalgic Dick’s logo and tag line, they also sell to the T’s to the public for a mere ten bucks!
I remember admiring my grade school friend Rachel’s older sister Laura, who worked at the Wallingford location in the very early 80’s. She proudly sported her Dick’s T-Shirt even on her days off and it was orange even way back then. Rachel and I, singing B-52’s songs from memory, would walk up and visit her there; scamming fries to go with the burgers paid for with our allowance money. When I was finally old enough to drive and could wrangle the keys to my Dad’s VW, I would take a spin up to the Broadway Dick’s and treat myself to a Deluxe, fries and creamy Vanilla shake. Eating in the car, I would watch the Seagulls circle hungrily as I listened to obscure tunes spun on KCMU, the local college radio station. Though the familiar orange foil of the Deluxe wrapper hasn’t changed, the radio station’s play list and call letters have evolved to suit the times. With the advent of Internet radio, I still listen in from my far away perch in Berlin, proud to be a member of the listener powered, advertising free alternative to Clear Channel and uninspired corporate music monopolies called www.KEXP.org.
On this trip to Seattle I was determined to make the requisite re-con visit to Dick’s. Once again I found myself sitting in the same car, in the same familiar parking lot, listening in to the same radio station as I did 17 years ago; chomping away at my burger. Hungry seagulls squawked from above – hoping for a spare fry as panhandlers, going from car to car, asked for spare change. On the radio the annual summer pledge drive was well underway with pleas for donations to KEXP. DJs and Station Managers shared the microphone, inviting support from the growing global village of listeners. Their banter for cash interrupting the normally steady stream of obscure independent music from the likes of Modest Mouse, Wilco and Calexico. I didn’t need to close my eyes to be transported back to my high school days, sneaking off campus with my buddies for a leisurely lunch at Dick’s. All it took was a single bite of my “Dick’s Deluxe” and the sound of reception static interrupting the rally call for listener supported independent radio. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Originally posted in 2004 for Outskirts, www.fashionwiredaily.com