Boise is a living museum of midcentury drive-thru burger joints.
It is no more apparent than on State Street — Boise’s burger mile, with three vintage fast-food restaurants within a 2-mile stretch. One of the most well-known is the neon, double-lane Westside Drive-In, which began as a grocery store in the 1930s and was converted to a restaurant in 1957. Its owner today is Chef Lou Aaron, and there is now a second location on ParkCenter Boulevard.
Vintage restaurants dot the landscape on the Bench as well, with places such as Golden Wheel Drive In on Fairview Avenue hearkening back to the days of drive-thru glory.
Many of Boise’s iconic burger shops have closed since the 1970s. For the several that survive, though, some things never change: The core customers remain teenagers and families.
Other things do change: Some customers now want gluten-free and vegetarian options alongside the double cheeseburger and deep-fried chicken strips.
And as national fast-food and burger chains open new locations across the Treasure Valley, the old-school restaurants’ owners say they’ve banded together as a loose clan of independents. There is talk of making that association more official, some of them said.
The first of Boise’s iconic drive-thrus, Fanci Freez, is known for its “Boston shake” — a shake and a sundae in a single cup.
Fanci Freez opened in 1947. Boise couple Chris and Meagan Bauer took it over in the fall of 2006.
The former car wash owners wanted to sell that business and try something new. The drive-thru with a neon sign was right down the road from their North End home. They went there for lunch often. It seemed a natural fit.
The former owner “wasn’t interested in selling at all, not at all,” Chris Bauer said. “We had to twist his arm.”
Since they bought it, the burger and ice cream restaurant has received major upgrades, with more to come, including a fire pit.
“When we bought it, it was pretty run-down,” Chris Bauer said. “We’ve remodeled it a lot and expanded hours of operation dramatically.”
The Bauers, now in their early 30s, each put in 75 to 80 hours per week during the busy season, between March and mid-October, he said.
They added lettuce wraps and gluten-free buns and ice cream to the menu this year. The additions have driven “a lot of sales,” Bauer said.
With investment from new business partners, the restaurant also started a food truck that offers Fanci Freez around town.
Bauer credits management, aesthetic and menu changes with “double-digit growth every year” and an overall sales increase of 445 percent since they took over.
Fanci Freez had a record day this year, in May, with 1,450 customers.
Will the Bauers keep the restaurant, instead of moving on to the next project?
“Absolutely,” Bauer said.
North End residents and Bogus Basin skiers frequently stop at the walk-up burger stand on Bogus Basin Road where it picks up from Harrison Boulevard. Hawkins Pac-Out opened in 1954.
In 1994, the Zimmerman family bought the restaurant from the grandson of the Hawkins brothers, the longtime owners of what had once been a Red Steer drive-in.
The Hawkins family still owns the property under the restaurant, said Justin Zimmerman, general manager and co-owner with his parents. The lease requires the restaurant to retain its Hawkins Pac-Out name, he said.
The Zimmermans have put their faith in Boise’s love of burgers. In January 2014, they opened Zimm’s Burger Stache on Fairview Avenue.
Why the different name, given Hawkins Pac-Out’s name recognition?
“It was a very difficult choice” to go with a different name, Justin Zimmerman said, but the new restaurant has no contractual obligation to the Hawkins family.
And what’s a stache?
“When you’re eating a burger, you put it up to your mouth, and you’ve got a burger ’stache,” he said. “It was kind of a fun name, and we thought the mustache lent itself to having a good theme. ... There’s a 6-foot mustache propped up with a chair behind it.”
Zimmerman declined to disclose sales at either location. He said sales are up about 20 percent over last year at Zimm’s Burger Stache and are increasing at Hawkins Pac-Out.
A kind of sister restaurant to Fanci Freez, Big Bun is a drive-thru that sells XL burgers and XXL drinks.
Located on the corner of Curtis and Overland roads, it opened more than 50 years ago. A few years ago, it was sold to three local businessmen, including two who also owned Fanci Freez. For a time, there was shared branding, with Fanci Freez being sold at Big Bun. But the third investor, John Bleymaier, bought out his partners to become sole owner of Big Bun in the summer of 2014. (Bleymaier also owns three local car washes.)
Big Bun shares an accountant and bookkeeper — Dick Carter — with Fanci Freez. Carter said he visits both restaurants every day.
“We cooperate with each other, we like each other, we accept everyone’s gift cards on occasion,” Carter said of the two businesses. “We sort of still are related by that history (of the co-branding).”
Sales at both restaurants have increased in recent years thanks to remodels and better marketing, Carter said.
Big Bun, however, eschews the trends of Groupons, social media blitzes and text-alert coupons. It sticks to its old-fashioned roots when it comes to bringing in customers.
“We’ve sort of resisted all of that,” Carter said. “We have a loyal customer base. We think advertising by word-of-mouth is very valuable.”
Julie Moore jokes that being on a major intersection works well for her family’s drive-in restaurant, “if we can avoid cars.”
Just before Thanksgiving last year, an errant driver plowed a pickup truck into the Viking Drive In, near the intersection of Veterans Memorial Parkway and State Street. There were no injuries, but the crash did a lot of damage to the restaurant, which opened in the early 1960s and has been owned and operated by Moore’s family since 1973.
The secret to the longevity, she said, is that it’s a family-owned business. Moore has learned the trade from her father and grandfather.
“We appreciate people who are willing to roll down their window when it’s 5 degrees outside,” she said.
But she worries what will happen to the business when the Ada County Highway District makes changes to create a partial U-turn at State Street and Veterans Memorial Parkway.
“To have these independent drive-ins around that are kind of the dinosaurs of the industry, it’s amazing,” Moore said. “It’s hard against those chains; we just don’t have the manpower and attorneys and advertising.
“Whether it’s Chef Lou (at Westside) or the Pac-Out or the guy and daughter who own the Viking, we’re not really going against each other, you know? We’re all local.”