Story and photos by BRANDON RISLEY
Come see why Hires Big H has been one of the most popular restaurants in Salt Lake City for over 50 years.
Hires Drive In was founded in 1959 by Don Hale. He originally worked for his family’s grocery store that they created to help with money during the Great Depression.
Mark Hale, a son of Don Hale and current co-owner of Hires with his brother Jon, said that during the time of the Great Depression Don worked a lot with fresh meats and produce and developed a keen sense for how burgers should be made.
Mark talked about how his father wanted out of the of the grocery business. “He hated it,” he said. “He had to work long hours and did the same things every single day. Because of the store he knew his way around a grill and with his knowledge of food he wanted to start his own restaurant.”
Mark said his father purchased property in the early 1950s by his family’s grocery store in hopes to one day open his own place. When Don finally had the money to build, he completed his first restaurant. To this day it still stands at the same street corner in Salt Lake City.
Before Don opened his restaurant’s doors he still couldn’t figure out what to name it. Mark said that Don Hale had taken a trip to California before the restaurant’s first day to get away from the store for a bit. He visited a place called Bob’s Big Boy and fell in love with burgers there. “He wanted to name it after [Bob’s Big Boy] but it had already been trademarked,” Mark said.
Shortly before the store opening day a salesperson for Hires Root Beer was making rounds asking if people wanted to sell Hires at their establishments.
“My father figured, ‘Yeah that’s not a bad idea. A tall, cold glass of root beer would go great with a burger,’” Mark said. According to Hires Big H website, when Don took the deal Hires sent him a sign to put up above his restaurant to help advertise Hires and not long after the name of Hires Drive In came to life.
Mark said the restaurant was doing very well but his father wanted to spice up the place by adding something new. “His mother used to make a kind of Thousand Island dressing-type sauce that had a pink color to it. My father loved the sauce and figured it would taste great on a hamburger,” Mark said.
Don experimented with a few different ingredients until he finally created the sauce he adored as a kid. He then put it on a burger and the Big H Burger was created.
Mark said the customers loved the sauce so much that they asked for cups of it to dip in their fries. The experiment took off and Hires’s signature fry sauce was then invented. According to Don Hale’s obituary, published in the Salt Lake Tribune in January 2011, the company was then producing more than 10,000 gallons of fry sauce annually for its restaurants and retail.
Mark said that he can’t reveal exactly what is in fry sauce. “It’s a family trade secret but essentially it starts with ketchup and mayonnaise,” Mark said.
According to the Tribune article, the Big H led to a whole new line of burgers such as the Western H, which is basically the Big H with bacon, and Country H, which comes with BBQ sauce. With the “H” added to the menu, Don decided to rename his restaurant from Hires Drive In to Hires Big H.
Mark said that Don never actually told his customers exactly what the H stood for. “The rumors going around were that it was either Hale, Hires or hamburger,” Mark said. According to the Tribune article, Don only had this to say to his customers: “Let’s just say it’s one of those.”
Mark said that with old age and many years of work setting in for Don he handed ownership over to his oldest son Jon in 1980. Five years later Mark joined his brother as co-owner. “We’ve tried to keep things as similar as possible to when my father first opened the place,” Mark said. “We did a remodel shortly after taking over and tried to bring it more back to what it felt like in the ’50s but for the most part we’ve tried to keep it the same with the same items and feel.”
Don Hale died on Jan. 29, 2011, at the age of 93. “We were devastated with our loss but we knew my father had led a successful and happy life,” Mark said.
Mark said his father believed in hard work, quality of food and bringing together a community. Long-time Salt Lake City resident Celeste Bennett said she’s been coming to Hires Big H since it opened. “We had just moved from Denver [and we] used to live off 600 South and 800 East,” Bennett said. “We’ve been going to Hires ever since the ’60s. When we first met Don as he was walking around the restaurant we were just blown away by how nice he was. He not only asked us if everything tasted good but also talked to us about our move to Salt Lake and how we liked the city.”
Mark went on to say, “My father didn’t just want to create a place with great tasting food, which he did, but he wanted to create a place the friends and families could come to celebrate life. It’s kind of become our mission statement.”
Mark also said Hires’s fame has been helped by articles written in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Cassidy Simpson, a student at the U, has loved Hires Big H ever since she moved to Utah in August 2013. “I love this place so much,” Simpson said. “There isn’t really a local burger joint close to my house in Las Vegas and so coming here and experiencing something as awesome as this is just incredible. The burgers taste like heaven.” Simpson also talked about the fry sauce. “I’d heard that fry sauce was created in Utah and after tasting it with one of the yummy fries at Hires I’m very glad that they did.”
Mark said owning Hires Big H has been one of the greatest joys in his life. “I love seeing people happy,” he said. “I love seeing them so content and satisfied and it just makes me smile. They come together and bond and become happier from the moment they walk through the doors.”
The best part about Hires Big H? “The community has all came together over a simple hamburger,” Mark said.