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Tuesday, November 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis / Times staff columnist

Founder of Dick's Drive-In is about more than burgers and fries

Seattle Times staff columnist

Through the big glass windows, we're watching the ritual on the other side. Dick's shakes are being made, and they're being made the old-fashioned way, with a scoop, milk, syrup (chocolate, 80 percent of the time), and then individually whipped.

Standing alongside me is Dick Spady, after whom the five Dick's Drive-In restaurants are named. He's 79, and it's approaching 50 years now since he had his drive-in vision that became a Seattle landmark.

But he still gets excited about making a shake. We watch them being whipped up, and Dick is explaining how the temperature inside the cup slightly rises. "And makes the flavoring get to its maximum, smooth and creamy," he adds.

As we're watching the shakes, Dick says, "There is this concept in administrative theory. The first time you do anything, you can expect trouble. It's called the frustration phenomenon." What I think Dick is talking about is that by its nature, working at a burger joint is not a place for professional cooks. So the work has to be designed in simple tasks: Making a shake is Step 1, Step 2, Step 3.

By then I've been listening to Dick for a while, and Dick not only has been talking burgers, but also lots more, like how to build affordable housing, like stuff he put in a book he co-wrote, titled "The Leadership of Civilization Building." At first this takes me aback, but then I figure, well, when you've been plenty successful with your original vision, it allows you to pursue your administrative theories.

We're at the original drive-in at 111 N.E. 45th St. in Wallingford, which from its glassy walls, to the stainless-steel counters, to the big parking lot (no inside seating; no outside benches or tables; this is a drive-in!), to the big '50s-style retro sign, makes you want to hop right into a pink Cadillac convertible and just cruise.

I've stopped by because Dick's is counting down to its 50th anniversary — in January 2004. You can never start these countdowns too early. Like, part of the countdown is a Dick's auction for charity on eBay; among the artifacts for sale is the booth in which Bill Gates did a "60 Minutes" interview. The Web page is at members.ebay.com/aboutme/dicksdriveins/.

There is a story in a biography of Gates about how he once tried to pay for a Dick's meal with a $1,000 bill. (Paul Allen, the other Microsoft co-founder, also has been a Dick's fan, stopping for a Deluxe burger, fries and chocolate shake, often before going to a movie.)

That "60 Minutes" interview took place at the Dick's on Lower Queen Anne, it being the only one of the restaurants with inside seating. It opened in 1974, and Dick's was trying to keep up with that trend in fast food.

But otherwise Dick's has stayed pretty much with the basic formula that made Paul Allen a customer. Once the business had the fleeting thought of selling espresso. No way. "It would have been out of character with who we are and what we do," Dick explains.

A big change at Dick's was adding a Deluxe burger (lettuce, mayonnaise and chopped pickle) and a Special (two patties of beef). The cheeseburger, which accounts for half of the more than 1 million burgers that the Dick's restaurants sell annually, has stayed the same: beef, cheese, ketchup and mustard.

Even the "gooper" used to squirt ketchup onto the burger is the same gooper that was around in the 1950s, squirting a nice even amount over the burger so there is ketchup in every bite. The company that made the device is no longer around, so Dick's contracts with a metal shop to build the replacement components.

While at the franchise burger joints the French fries are premade and arrive frozen, at Dick's real Burbank Russet No. 2 potatoes are put in a slicer and washed several times before they are deep-fried. The five restaurants go through 2,200 pounds of potatoes a day.

They take their French fries seriously at Dick's. I read a memo that has been posted to all hands: "Place the fresh wet potatoes against the back left corner in such a manner that as much as possible, the dry potatoes don't become wet from the new one. This must be done at the proper time regardless of business pressure."

Inside the drive-in, Dick shows me a tiny room, maybe 5 by 6 feet. That used to the office where all the payroll, all the paperwork was done. Now the Dick's company headquarters is a two-story house across the street from the Wallingford drive-in.

It is there that Dick recounts a story he has told many times. It is 1953, and Dick, a World War II Navy veteran who also served in the Korean War as a commissary officer, is working in Portland for a real-estate developer. What he wants to do, though, is go into business for himself.

In Portland, Dick often eats lunch at a restaurant called the Carnival. It does a fantastic business selling burgers. Dick also has heard about the burger drive-ins that are the craze in California. Sitting at one of the stools in the restaurant, he begins to draft a 19-page business plan for a burger joint in Seattle and sends it to H. Warren Ghormley, a WWII buddy.

The plan calls for a drive-in with big glass windows and stainless steel. There are plenty of fluorescent lights. Customers can look inside and see that it is very clean.

The banks have a hard time believing you can make money on a 19-cent burger, since the going price then is around 30 cents. Finally a contractor says he'll put up the building in exchange for a share of the profits and a promise of repayment.

Dick likes to repeat how the contractor tells the partners that his banker, accountant, insurance agent and attorney all tell him the deal is risky. Dick says the contractor decides to go ahead anyway. The contractor says, "If I always did everything they told me to do, I'd be working for them in six months." On Jan. 28, 1954, the Dick's in Wallingford opens.

Dick and Ghormley both work at the drive-in, taking turns as day and evening managers. By the next year, they open the Dick's Drive-In on Broadway, expanding every few years. They stay local, not wanting to travel, which is what you have to do to promote a franchise.

In 1991, Dick buys out his partners (the late B.O.A. Thomas, a faculty member at the University of Washington's dental school, was the third, and silent, partner). Now the corporate chart shows Dick as the president and includes three of the Spadys' five children.

These days, Dick stops by the office maybe once or twice a week. He leaves operations management to Jim Spady, 44. But there is no doubt who is in charge. "I'm president for life," Dick says.

But as I mentioned, it is not just burgers that Dick wants to talk about: "Here is something else that's dear to my heart. It's the Zone diet, and in 1997 I lost 30 pounds in six months," he says.

I tell Dick, wait a minute, how do cheeseburgers, fries and shakes fit into a diet, know what I mean? Dick laughs.

"I call it ceremonial eating," he says about burgers.

Dick, as is his nature, has written his own report about balancing protein, fat and carbohydrates. The ceremonial-eating part is about how with friends or business events, he enjoys himself and eats what is provided "for psychological reasons that are important to me."

He also does eat a Dick's Deluxe burger with a shake, "but recognize it as a full meal and eat very lightly at other times during the day."

That makes me feel better, because you know that little guilty feeling you have after eating a Dick's cheeseburger, fries and shake?

Take it from the man who had the original vision. It's a ceremony that you're participating in. But you already knew that.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com.

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