I was raised with burgers and fries. My dad and grandfather built the Steer Inn on North Division in 1957 and worked it together for 15 years. In those days, the big three independent drive-ins were the Steer Inn, Ron's and Dick's Hamburgers. They remain the holy trinity of Spokane's traditional drive-up burger joints.
Though I consumed a ton of it, I never actually had the opportunity to work in fast food. (My family sold the Steer Inn before I was tall enough to reach the grill.) And while most of you would probably consider that a stroke of luck, I've always been a little haunted by this weird sense of missed opportunity. And so it was a rush to be invited to enter the hallowed kitchens of Dick's Hamburgers, the only drive-in in the trinity that exists today almost exactly as it did when it first opened in 1960, walk-up ordering and all. After all this time, I'd been offered a chance to meet what could have been my destiny.
My assignment was to observe Dick's employees cutting fresh potatoes, breading fish, grilling ground cow and taking orders without writing anything down. Observe, interview and report. And maybe get in on the action.
Photographer Ben Cater and myself were given rare access to the space behind Dick's order windows, where the pace rarely drops below frenzied and the orders fly through the air on the wings of shouted verbal commands. Our guide was general manager Jackie Nelson, a 25-year veteran. She explained that while an employee might spend a large part of a shift serving in a specialized capacity, everyone here performs multiple functions in the machine. Even Dick's founder Abe Miller -- who recently turned 94 -- still stops in every day to check on the operation.
"It's very much a team effort," Nelson says while handing me an official Dick's Coca-Cola baseball cap. "And people move around a lot."
Nelson started at Dick's back in 1971. She worked in the drive-in for nine years, left for another job, quit that job to raise her kids, returned to Dick's in 1990 -- and has been here ever since. But Nelson and owner Linda Peterson aren't the only long-timers.
"One of the gals I trained in the '70s has been here for 30 years," she says.
For Nelson, it was the flexible hours, the fun atmosphere and the people -- on both sides of the glass -- that brought her back: "I can do the grill and the wrapping and the fries. But I prefer the window. I really like working with the public."
Nelson sets up the tills in the morning, gets the prep work underway and then works wherever she's needed.
"I feel that I can be me here," she laughs. "Because I'm crazy, and they'll all tell you that. This is hard work, and people who have never worked fast food don't have a clue how hard it is. But what keeps them here is our owner Linda, who is so doggone good to these kids. And it's a fun place to work."
The first thing you notice as you move out from the break room, past the walk-in cooler and into the main work area, is how weird it feels to be on this side of the glass -- sort of like a zoo specimen. But that fades noticeably after just a few minutes in the trenches. After all, there's no time to nurse your neurosis here. Not when there's food to be made.
The first step in the French fry assembly line is the peeling of the potatoes. Dick's is one of the few drive-ins around town that cuts its own fries from fresh potatoes. Today, 10-year veteran Jamie McBride is working the tater station. She wrestles with the 50-pound bags, loads spuds into the mechanical peeler and then puts them one at a time through a lever-action slicer.
"We go through about 25 of these [50-pound bags] every day," says McBride. "Even more on weekends."
Making burgers is a two-man operation, with Jeremy McSpadden and Jack Yerxa working like a helmsman and a navigator, keeping the Whammys (double meat, double cheese) flowing. There's no counting of heads or any other estimating going on back here -- just a near constant transfer of meat to grill to bun to wrapper.
"You feel like a robot sometimes," says McSpadden.
The grill guys work ahead, lining 'em up in order of popularity.
Says Nelson, "On the table we try to keep Whammy, Whammy no onion, hamburger with everything, cheeseburger, hamburger no onion and hamburger plain. And from there, they can make whatever specials get called in."
McSpadden slaps the meat to grill in a 17-inch by six-inch grid. (Yep, that's 102 patties.) Yerxa throws onions on open-faced buns like he's sowing seed. When McSpadden gets a break from the grill, it's only to bread the fish portions that were hand-cut from fresh cod fillets earlier that day.
Dick's is famous for its incredibly low prices. Yet there is an extraordinary emphasis put on quality as well. Dick's burger meat (like the spuds and fish) is fresh, not frozen, and delivered to the drive-in each morning. They go through an average of 50 boxes a day, with each box containing 72 patties. You do the math.
Everyone on the crew is patient with us and happy to answer questions. But as soon as the action picks up again at the windows, they all go into overdrive. Ben and I seem to disappear. Which is fine. It's probably time to get out of here, anyway, and let these people work.
I feel a bittersweet pang of insignificance and realize that what's going on here is way more important than what we're doing as journalists. I mean, I'm just here today to observe and to write my dumb little story, a story soon to be forgotten. But this ... this goes on and on.
As I'm grabbing my jacket, Nelson spies us and says, "You're not leaving until you take an order, are ya?"
I didn't think she was serious. But she was.
"How's your memory?" she laughed.
"It sucks," said I.
But I bellied up to the window anyway, making eye contact with a customer and asking, "Can I help you?" The guy rattled off an order of two large fish and chips and two chocolate shakes -- an easy one for the rookie. After flubbing the call back to the fry cook, I finally shouted the correctly coded instruction: "Two doubles!" Following a quick tutorial, I got the shakes. Then it was time to retrieve the fish order, bag it myself, together with two tartars and one salt packet in each. Remembering not to tip the bags up -- as I initially did, shifting the contents inside -- I grabbed them, asked the guy if he wanted extra tartar (he did), limped through the register, broke the guy's $20, gave him his $13 and something back and apologized for my clumsy service.