A half century of Hires Big H (with video)

Institution » Iconic Utah diner celebrates its 50th anniversary as nation enjoys a resurgence in burger joints.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The biggest disappointment in Don Hale's life became his greatest opportunity.

When this farm boy from Grantsville learned back in the late 1950s that someone had already acquired the rights to his favorite hamburger stand -- Bob's Big Boy -- Hale decided that, rather than sulk, he would start his own restaurant, a little place he called Hires Big H.

This month, as this Utah dining institution celebrates its 50th anniversary, Hale, now 91, is being remembered for his can-do attitude, impeccable timing and iconic hamburgers.

"My dad was always willing to take a chance and try something new," said Hale's son, Mark Hale, who now runs the family business with his brother Jon. "He was very creative and always thinking."

With its juicy hamburgers and root beer floats, Hires is an enduring piece of Utah nostalgia. It's a favorite lunch spot for everyone from businessmen to college students. And it's the spot of countless date nights and family celebrations.

Jeff Baird, of Sandy, has Hires to thank for all the "good things" in his life. As a teenager, his sister, Amy, worked at the restaurant. Amy became friends with a fellow waitress, named Laura, who ultimately met Baird and became his wife. And after he and Laura had children of their own, Baird's parents made it a tradition to take their grandchildren to Hires for shakes and French fries.

"Hires is a place that will always hold special memories for me," Baird wrote, as part of Hires 50th Anniversary essay contest (see details above). "I will continue to take my kids there and buy them caramel shakes in memory of their late grandma, and each time we go, I will remember the beautiful waitress that has made my life something special, and through it all I will remember that none of it may have come to pass if not for a special place I have been."

Celebrity favorite » No wonder Hires' reputation has spread all over the globe. People come by car, RV and straight from the airport, said general manager Jim Merrill, a Hires employee since 1968. There are regulars from Australia, and not long ago he met some Italians who heard about the restaurant from missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Through the years, high-ranking politicians and well-known celebrities have been known to stop in and enjoy a burger and fries -- including Robert Redford, Jay Leno, Johnny Miller and Roma Downey. Several members of the Utah Jazz are regulars. Earlier this year, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was spotted there, and former Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman would occasionally pull up, turn his lights on and take advantage of the car-hop service outside, said Merrill.

Hires Big H is reaching its half-century mark at the same time Utah -- and the rest of the country -- is seeing a resurgence in gourmet burger joints. Dozen of new chains have entered the state in recent months. (See the list at bottom.)

It's all about the comfort food factor, said Mark Hale.

"Like macaroni and cheese or good mashed potatoes and gravy, a well-made hamburger is tasty and comforting," he said, adding that the combination of meat, bread and vegetables is quick to make and easy to handle on the go.

That's what people discovered in the 1950s, when drive-ins, particularly with car hops, were the trend. Don Hale, who had worked in his family's grocery store, Hale's Market, since he was just a young boy when he became intrigued by the phenomenon.

"Even though he worked long hours, he really did not like the grocery business. He was social and liked to be around people, and the restaurant business helped fulfill that," said Mark Hale, who helped his father chronicle his life in self-published book Opportunity Knocks Twice: Living More Successfully .

In the beginning » Starting a restaurant wasn't a stretch for Don Hale. Through the grocery store, he had access to fresh meat, bread and produce. In the early 1950s, he had purchased property adjacent to the family's market on 700 East and 400 South.

When he was denied the Big Boy franchise, Don and his wife, Shirley, applied for a loan through Zions Bank and began building the cinder block building at 425 S. 700 East, which still stands today. It had a 50-seat dining room with a juke box, fountain, grill kitchen and an area out back where a car hop could bring customers their food.

Shortly before opening in the summer of 1959, Hale still did not have a name for his restaurant. One day a salesman stopped in and asked if he wanted to sell Hires root beer. If Hale accepted the offer, the soft drink company would provide a sign to help advertise their beverage. Shortly thereafter, in October 1959, Hires Drive In was born.

From the very beginning, Mark Hale said, Hires used quality ingredients. His father always purchased fresh bread, cut his own lettuce and tomatoes, and ground his own meat for the burgers. It's something the restaurant still does today at its government-inspected processing facility in West Valley. The facility is adjacent to Hires' second store, which opened in 1987. In 1992, the company's third store opened in Midvale.

In between opening hamburger joints, Don Hale also opened Litza's Pizza on 400 South, east of his hamburger restaurant.

It wasn't until the 1970s when Hires added its signature burger, The Big H, which got its distinctive flavor from a pink hamburger sauce -- a Hale family recipe. It soon became a customer favorite for dipping French fries. Today, the company makes 10,000 gallons of this fry sauce each year, some of which is bottled and sold at retail.

The success of the Big H prompted a whole line of specialty burgers, from the Country H to the Pastrami H. The success prompted Hales to add an "H" to the company name. Although no one is quite sure what the letter officials stands for: Hires, hamburger or Hales?

"Let's just say it's one of those," Don used to tell customers.

Up until about five years ago, Don Hale continued to work at Hires every day. Now at age 91, "he's worn out," said his son, and requires round-the-clock help. However, once or twice a week his caregivers will bring him into Hires for lunch, where he will usually order a cheeseburger with grilled onions.

And while his memory fails him often, on occasion he will ask how the business is doing, said Mark Hale.

"He loved this business like it was if first-born child," said his son. "Even today when he remembers, he asks how they [the restaurants] are doing. He's always interested in knowing if we are carrying on the fine tradition."

This time, the answer is a resounding "yes."


Burger scene

In hard times, everyone goes back to comforting food, and there is nothing more satisfying than a juicy hamburger and French fries. Here are seven recent additions to Utah's burger scene that are helping satisfy our gourmet burger craving.

Chadder's » This Utah-owned franchise has locations in American Fork, West Valley and Provo. Owner Chadd Stubbs is a native of Southern California who moved to Utah for college. After moving away to pursue a baseball career, he and his wife returned to the Beehive State and decided to recreate the '50s-style burger joint of his youth, offering a simple menu of burgers, fries, drinks and shakes as well as a car-hop service.

The Counter » This Los Angeles-based chain opened its first (and only) Utah store at Salt Lake City's Gateway Mall in the fall of 2008. Customers choose from dozens of different gourmet burger toppings. There more than 300,000 possible combinations in all. Burgers are freshly ground, hand-formed and cooked to order. Named one of "20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die."

Five Guys Burgers and Fries » In 2009, stores opened in Midvale, Sandy, West Valley, Bountiful and Orem. It started as a small burger joint in Arlington, Va., in 1986, and was named for the five sons of founders Jerry and Janie Murrell. Bags of potatoes are stacked in the entry way to let customers know the French fries are cut fresh. Beef patties are hand-shaped and grilled, two to a bun, and piled with toppings from the traditional lettuce and ketchup to grilled onions, peppers and jalapenos. Unlike their competitors, there is no drive-through.

In-N-Out Burger » This California-based chain opened its first Utah restaurant in May 2008, in Washington City near St. George. A location in West Jordan is under construction, and is expected to open before the end of the year. Another store is planned in West Valley City. Since opening in 1948, the chain has developed a cult-like following, namely for its use of fresh ingredients and the lack of microwaves, freezers and heat lamps. In-the-know diners understand the secret ordering code such as the "3-by-3," three meat patties and three slices of cheese; or "animal style," a mustard-cooked patty with extra pickles, grilled onions and sauce, a tomato-mayonnaise mixture that is eerily similar to fry sauce.

Salt City Burger Co. » This locally-owned restaurant grinds its beef fresh every day and offers customers a choice of gourmet toppings, including grilled onions, sauteed mushrooms, pastrami and grilled pineapple. The French fries are hand-cut and the onion rings have a house-made batter. Located at 9176 S. Village Shop Dr., in Sandy, and opening soon in Bountiful.

Scaddy's Fresh Grill » Wayne and Terry Scadlock, who operated the Sunset Drive-In on Sunset Blvd. in St. George, opened this Salt Lake City restaurant a few months ago at 1846 S. 300 West. Burgers, fries, shakes are the bulk of the menu, but there also are breakfast items, sandwiches and the restaurant's signature hand-battered chicken strips.

Smashburger » Two restaurants -- one in West Valley City, the other in Salt Lake City's Sugar House neighborhood -- opened in August. The Denver-based hamburger franchise gets its name because cooks take either a 1/3-pound or 1/2-pound ball of fresh-ground Angus beef and smashes it onto a hot grill to seal in juices. The meal includes butter-toasted artisan buns, real cheese, fresh produce and distinctive toppings, which include haystack onions, guacamole or even a fried egg.

TonyBurgers » Another Utah-owned offering where the burgers are hand-formed from freshly ground beef and griddle-seared to seal in flavor. The French fries are fresh-cut and fried twice in pure peanut oil to make them extra crispy. The shakes are made from hard ice cream and whipped until creamy. Only one location: 331 Parrish Lane, Centerville.

50th Anniversary Contests

Hires Big H is sponsored two contests this month to celebrate half a century in business.

First is an essay contest. Write down your favorite memory about Hires Big H or founder Don Hale and submit it, via email, to hiresbigh@gmail.com. (Use either Word or WordPerfect format.) Up to 100 winners in each category will receive $25 Hires/Litza's Pizza gift certificates. Winning stories may be published in an upcoming book.

Those with artistic talents may want to enter the "Design a Hires Big H T-shirt." The five best designs will receive $100 restaurant gift certificates.

Rules and entry forms for both contests are available online at: www.hiresbigh.com. Deadline to enter is Nov. 15.