Business Profile: Dick’s Drive-In, then and now

Dick's Drive-In sign
Since opening in 1954, Dick’s Drive-In has served affordable burgers to the Seattle community and offered training opportunities for locals looking to get work experience. Photo: Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants

When looking for a burger in the Seattle area, the spinning Dick’s Drive-In (DDI) sign may be hard to pass up for many Washingtonians. More than a stopping place to grab a low-cost, delicious burger, it is has grown alongside the community throughout the years. It is an institution.

Lens met with Jasmine Donovan, Executive Vice President and CFO of DDI, to learn about how the restaurant got its start and has remained successful as Seattle has continued to change. The granddaughter of DDI founder Dick Spady, Donovan worked in the family business in high school and college as a crew member and rejoined the company as a member of the executive team in 2013.

Spady served during World War II and was sent to Hawaii after turning 18. After the war, he went to college and then served as an officer in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After graduating with a business degree, Spady was assigned as a commissary officer during the Korean War where he learned mass food service production.

Upon returning home, Spady called both his old navy friend H. Warren Ghormley and also Dr. B. O. A. Thomas, a dentist at the University of Washington who was interested in the McDonald brothers’ store concept, to discuss the fast food restaurant business. The group traveled to California and paid $50 to work for the weekend in one of the businesses that was following the McDonald’s model so they could learn the ropes. The men took notes and brought the concept back to Seattle.

“It was a tough sell locally to offer burgers for 19 cents where people wouldn’t sit down inside and would have to line up outside and eat in their car…it sounded like a crazy concept,” Donovan told Lens.

The friends had a hard time getting the funding needed to open their own restaurant, as fast food was brand new and there were almost no other businesses in the area like it. Eventually they acquired the needed investment and opened the first Dick’s Drive-In in January 1954, located on 45th Street in Wallingford.

“The concept is they wanted to sell a high-quality burger at a low price, very fast,” said Donovan, and the founder achieved this through the restaurant’s instant service model which did not include the overhead costs of indoor seating.

“People were on the go…they didn’t have time to sit down in a service restaurant anyway, and this was going to be the way they would get food on the way home from work or for a quick lunch in their busy lives.”

Throughout the years Dick’s integrated into the community, with customers celebrating their first car purchase…or introducing their kids to French fries for the first time. These milestone acknowledgements have allowed for generations of customers to keep coming back.

Spady knew the importance of investing in the community, and the business has consistently reflected that value over the years. Past successful charity operations have included the “Change for Charity” and “Round Up For Charity” programs, which have raised almost $2 million for local charities helping the local homeless population.

The company also devotes itself to the wellbeing of its workforce by offering high wages and benefits, including its $25,000 scholarship program over the course of four years, available to employees who have worked 20 hours a week for six months and then continue working while participating in a college, vocational or self-improvement programs. Other worker benefits include 100-percent employer-paid health insurance, 401k plans with a company match and childcare assistance.

Dick’s employees can expect to learn on-the-job skills they can take to their next career and use the scholarship opportunity to pursue their passions, said Donovan.

The restaurant’s model has remained relatively unchanged from the original store on its first day, which compliments the strong generational memories afforded to customers. The business has made mostly minor changes across the years, including adding the deluxe and special versions of the burger offered in the 70s. The restaurants have recently started accepting credit cards as payment options to ensure more guests are able to stop by without first visiting an ATM.

A growing city means more visitors to Dick’s; however, the changes also bring new challenges.

“Regulation is tough and adapting to all the new regulations are challenging, but a lot of what is being regulated is something we’ve taken to heart,” said Donovan. “It’s just different when the regulations come…there’s usually administration burdens that didn’t used to exist, so that’s where there are a lot of costs and challenges.”

Donovan said Seattle has offered the company a strong customer base where Dick’s could be seen as “a constant in an ever-changing world” to the variety of guests patronizing the restaurant. The company has been growing with the community since its start, opening a location in Edmonds in 2011 and making plans to open a Kent restaurant in the fall.

The strong relationship with the community has lessened the need for direct marketing, and for 37 years, the business did not add new locations. While preparing for the Edmonds location to open, the company engaged with customers on social media, asking in what part of town the business should build the new restaurant.

“We have been able to reach a lot of our customers with a lot of new media while staying very classic and old school at our restaurants. It’s our combination of old and new that keeps our brand alive and relevant.”

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