Big 'H' still hot

Hires' Hale working hard at 86

Published: Sunday, Jan. 25 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Don Hale, center, visits with the Moores \\— Jennifer, 2-year-old Kendell and Kelly \\— during the lunch rush at the Hires Big H restaurant he opened in 1959. At 86 years old, Hale still enjoys working at the restaurant.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Down at Hires Big H Restaurant — home of the state's legendary burger — you can still see the old man working. He shovels snow in the parking lot. Sweeps floors. Picks up trash.

He should be at home with his feet propped up in front of the fire or lying on a beach in Maui, but this morning he braved the snow and icy temperatures to make deliveries to the restaurant.

Why is that old guy still working, customers ask waitresses? Isn't that the guy on the back of the menu?

Don Hale is a multimillionaire. He could hire someone to sweep the floor and seat customers, but, ever the child of the Depression, work is what he knows and loves.

"I'll never quit working," he says.

Did we mention he's 86 years old?

"There are many rules for success, but none of them work unless you do. "

Right from the top we should also mention that Hale loves adages, which he has collected over the years from books, wise friends and his own brain. He sprinkles his conversation with quotes to explain almost everything he does or believes. He's a walking Bartlett's. He quotes continually from Lee Iacocca, author Dan Ludlow and various leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has collected 20 pages of his favorite one-liners.

"Everybody should have three things: They should have something to do, someone to love and something to always look forward to. "

Hale's work is something to do, his large family is someone to love and his travels are something to look forward to.

Today there is something to do, and he couldn't be happier about it. Work has been his life's passion. Hale was still working six days a week until about a year ago when family urged him to cut back. He compromised to three days a week.

He started Hires Big H Restaurant in 1959. Since then it has beaten back all comers in a highly competitive, cutthroat field — national fast-food franchises, health food, pizza, salad bars, Mexican food, Ronald McDonald, Jared, Happy Meals. Wendy's opened up across the street and quickly went away.

Hale's original little restaurant, in its modest gray cinderblock home on 700 East and 400 South, has become a Utah institution. He never even advertised; his customers did that for him.

"New business is how you take care of old business."

Robert Redford has eaten there. So have Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Jay Leno, Danny Kaye, Johnny Miller, John Glenn, Roma Downey and almost every senator, governor, mayor and Utah Jazz player you can name. Is there anyone in Utah who hasn't eaten in this place? Out-of-towners show up at Hires straight from the airport. "Somebody told us about it as soon as we landed," they explain. During the Olympics it was almost standing room only.

"We were in London once and someone asked my dad, 'Aren't you Mr. Hires?' " says Nancy Marks, Hale's daughter who waitresses at the restaurant.

"You don't have a second chance to make a good first impression. "

Name another locally owned burger joint that has been written up in the Wall Street Journal and Gourmet Magazine.

This one little burger stand nets $1 million a year (and that doesn't count what Hale brings in from carbon-copy restaurants in Midvale and West Valley and Litzas Pizzas next door). Ask him to explain the restaurant's success, Hale sounds like a commercial: "It's the quality," he says.

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