Seattle lost an icon earlier this month when Dick Spady, the 92-year old founder of Dick’s Drive-In restaurants, died.
He was an entrepreneur who took a risk, worked hard, treated his workers and customers well, sold an excellent product at an affordable price, and did his part to make his community and country a better place to live and raise a family.
Dick Spady was a pacesetter in the fast food industry which developed a full-head of steam in the 1950s. He was quick to recognize a business opportunity and believed that people wanted a fast, affordable and high quality meal.
Spady, who was raised in Portland and sold real estate, and two partners opened the first Dick’s Drive-In in 1954 near the University of Washington. He later bought them out and it became a family-owned business
Sales of Dick’s 19-cent hamburgers, 11-cent fries and 15-cent hand-dipped milkshakes soared. It became the place to go even if it was 100 degrees in the shade or freezing cold in the rain.
Over 20 years, Dick’s added four other restaurants in the northern parts of Seattle. Only a store in Bellevue bit the dust. Then in 2011, after 15,000 people voted online to pick the new location, the Spady family opened its first store in 37 years.
The new store is in Edmonds and Dick Spady cut the ribbon as the bagpipers and drummer played. It was a happening and that’s the way it has been over the last 62 years.
Other drive-in restaurants have changed dramatically. They have rebranded and added drive-thru windows, switched to frozen fries and set up large distribution chains. Meanwhile, Dick’s maintains the same service model with fresh beef, buns and hand-cut potatoes for French fries.
“We don’t do chicken or fish,” Jim Spady, one of Dick’s sons who became president, told me. “We stick to what we do best—hamburgers!”
McDonalds started in 1955 when Ray Kroc, a multi-milkshake mixer and paper cup salesman in California, convinced the McDonalds brothers to expand. People in Seattle may even remember the McDonald’s Drive-In just outside Sicks (baseball) Stadium in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. It offered the same menu from walk-up counters like Dick’s.
Now fast food restaurants are open 24 hours, serve breakfast all day, have kid’s meals with toys, big advertising budgets, and offer extensive menus. Dick’s keeps its traditional menu and hours—10:30 to 2:00 a.m. It’s burgers, fries and shakes are its advertising.
In 2012, Dick’s was declared America’s “Most Life-Changing Burger Joint” in an online Esquire poll beating out In-N-Out and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
Dick’s treats its employees as family.
Its workers are paid higher than minimum wage, offered up to $25,000 in college tuition assistance, provided health and dental benefits and child care assistance. They are even are paid for community service. It is no wonder Dick’s Drive-In has the lowest employee turnover rate in the industry.
In total, Dick’s has provided over $1 million each in education scholarships and support local charities and disaster relief. The Spady family involves its customers who have dropped over $800,000 in change in “Change for Charities” boxes on store counters.
Dick Spady served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He was patriotic and believed deeply in America. In 2008, he founded and funded the Community Forums Network as a means to facilitate citizen involvement in public policy decisions.
Just as Dick’s Drive-Ins are built to last, Spady wanted to make sure that America continued to prosper for generations to come.
Thanks, Dick. We’re glad you came our way.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.