Hal’s Drive In: Elvis is Still in the Building…and He’s Having a Ranch Burger
To describe Hal’s Drive In as “retro” may be tempting…and you’d be forgiven for doing so. But you’d be missing the point, if not downright condescending. The truth is that Sedro-Woolley’s beloved burger joint has remained pretty much the same for the past 60 or more years. It’s the rest of the world that’s changed.
Walk into Hal’s Drive In and there are three things you’ll quickly notice. The first is that when it comes to evoking the ‘50s, this place is the real deal. The second is the menu. Not only is the cuisine nostalgic, so are the prices; when’s the last time you got a cheese burger for $3.25 that wasn’t made ahead of time? The third thing is that someone at Hal’s has a serious Elvis obsession.
Don’t believe it! He’s here.
That someone…or someones, in this case…would be Hal’s owners, the husband and wife partnership of Cheerie (pronounced, “cheery”, she’ll have you know) Carr and Bob Anderson. In January, the duo celebrated their 25th year as the owners of the kind of burger joint that every town in America deserves, and none as richly as Sedro-Woolley — a community that stubbornly but blithely refuses to go the way of too much of Small Town America. They don’t believe in extinction in Sedro-Woolley — not when they have logging in their DNA.
Local kids done well…by doing good. Meet Cheerie and Bob!
Hal’s roots go back deep into post-World War II America: an era of the interstate, car culture, and rock ’n roll — all of which contributed to the allure of the drive-in. Its predecessor, known as Phyates Ice Cream Parlor, first opened in 1948 as one of the original Dairy Queen fast food restaurants. “It was much smaller,” explains Cheerie. “You just walked up to a window to order your ice cream.”
Under a different set of owners, Phyates became Sedro-Woolley Drive In, following the addition of what Cheerie remembers as a “tiny little kitchen”. It was purchased again in 1964 by Hal Carter, who created the menu that largely exists today…right down to the condiments such as his famous “goop” and tarter sauces. Hal eventually sold the restaurant to Alan and Angie Fox, who operated it as a “country cafe” for the next 9 years. Twenty-five years ago, Bob and Cheerie entered the narrative, purchasing the restaurant from the Foxes and bringing it to its present incarnation as the place in Sedro-Woolley to gather with friends and family and immerse yourself in the golden glow of a mythic time in which small town values informed our national identity.
You’re kicking it old school when you eat at Hal’s Drive In, Daddy-O!
Bob Anderson and Cheerie Carr are native Skagitonians who grew up with the timber industry. When Bob’s health necessitated a career change that did not involve cutting down trees, the couple decided to start a food concession (with no prior experience, it should be noted). They purchased a trailer for $1,200 and turned it into a mobile burger stand. Blessed with an inherent sense of marketing, Cheerie realized from the get go that they needed to be different to succeed. “You have to have a gimmick when you go out on the road,” she says, “so I got this guy in Bellingham to mix half buffalo and half beef and we called them ‘Buffalo Beef Burgers’. Nobody taught us how to make them, we just opened our doors and started — and we could get into any street fair we wanted to.” The following year they upgraded their trailer, operating under the name “Ancarr Concessions” (a combination of their last names). “Pretty soon other vendors dreaded our coming because everyone liked our food so much.”
Cheerie and Bob eventually found a company in Idaho that built a fully customized trailer for them. “It was a beautiful trailer and we had a big truck to haul it,” Cheerie remembers. It was destined to be their last restaurant on wheels. Cheerie recalls the day that changed their lives.
Humble beginnings…back in the day.
“One day the brakes were going out on the truck and Bob took it to our mechanic. He had some time to kill, so he walked over to Hal’s before it opened. Alan and Angie Fox were there making onion rings, and Bob got to talking with them. He told them that if they ever wanted to sell the place they should let him know. About a week and a half later we were sitting at home when the phone rang and it was the Foxes. Bob told them, “Just a minute,” and then asked me if we wanted to buy Hal’s Drive In. I hadn’t been in there for a long time, but we immediately decided to go from being ‘street people’ to owning a restaurant.”
Getting financing for the purchase of Hal’s turned out to be a lot harder than getting the Foxes to sell it. They approached a number of financiers before meeting Andy Hunter with Valley Bank, which at the time was located in a modular trailer down by the Carnation Building in Mount Vernon. “I drove by and asked to speak to the loan officer,” says Cheerie, “A man came out wearing blue jeans and a nice sport short and I thought, ‘I think we can do this.’ Because Andy believed in us that day we were able to buy Hal’s. It was meant to be.”
Hal’s Drive In: where you can still listen to Connie Francis on the jukebox.
’50s is as 50’s does.
Cheerie and Bob began making big changes to Hal’s Drive In, which locals had nicknamed “the fish bowl” because of its glass front. They doubled the kitchen size, replaced old equipment, enlarged the dining area, and added 18 feet to the rear of the structure — enough to accommodate a bathroom for patrons (“People used to have to walk through the kitchen to use the bathroom,” Cheerie explains). Under its new owners, Hal’s Drive In fully evolved its ‘50s vibe — and with the addition of a drive-up window, says Cheerie, “It really came to life.”
Friday night in July. Can’t you smell the burgers sizzling?
Say what you want about ambiance, but if the food doesn’t cut it, it’s all window dressing. Fortunately, if you’re jonesing for classic drive-in fare, Hal’s is the perfect place to indulge your passion. Much of the menu owes its origins to Hal Carter, whose recipes changed hands along with the restaurant. A good example is the ever popular Ranch Burger: double meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle — generously slathered with Hal Carter’s infamous “goop”, which the menu describes simply as “our own Special Sauce.” The price for this abundance? A mere $4.75 ($5.00 if you add an extra slice of cheese, which you really should).
Behold the Ranch Burger…as big as the Ponderosa!
Even the prices are a throw back in time!
“People who haven’t had the Ranch Burger think we much call it that because we put ranch dressing on it,” says Cheerie, “but when Hal Carter first made it he wanted it to be big enough for a ranch hand…and that was how it got the name.”
The legacy of Hal Carter lives on in more than just the menu of his eponymous drive-in. It continues as well in a generosity of spirit as big as the meals it serves. Cheerie remembers clearly the affection Hal had for his community, and his impact on local kids in particular. “His back door was always open to high school kids, and he was a counselor to them.” Bob and Cheerie take a lot of pride in keeping that spirit alive for whoever walks through their door — customers and employees alike. “We’ve had wonderful people work for us, and we’ve been able to help some of them out along the way. This restaurant has been a blessing to us.”
The crew at Hal’s Drive In knows the meaning of “grace under pressure”.
When customers ask us to help them with a logo design, we typically ask them about what their brand represents, and how they want their customers to experience it. In the case of Hal’s Drive In, the answer to that question comes easily for Cheerie. “It’s about old time quality: cooking on a grill, making the milkshakes from scratch, peeling and slicing our onion rings instead of using frozen ones…just kind of back to the real life.”
Much as we’d like to tell you that Cheerie and Bob’s zeal for their brand led to our installing their new sign and LED message center, the truth is far more prosaic. They just got tired of changing out the plastic letters of their old sign. “Nobody had the time for it,” Cheerie admits. “For the top part of the sign, I had a guy update our logo design based on our color scheme: black and white check, pink, and blue. I took it to Meyer Sign and they did a fantastic job with it. It’s pure ‘50s.”
Hal’s old sign gave a soft drink company top billing.
Hal’s new sign leaves no doubt as to whose brand gets marquee treatment.
After 25 years as the owners of Hal’s Drive-In, you might think that Bob and Cheerie would be ready kick back and take it easy…and Cheerie admits that several people have approached them about buying Hal’s. But however Cheerie might feel about selling their beloved drive-in, Bob has no interest in letting it go. “Bob says that everybody who quits working just dies,” says Cheerie. “He enjoys his daily chores. He comes in around 9:30 and goes to the back office and does the deposit form. He goes to the bank and talks to the girls there, and since his granddaughter works at the Chamber he stops by there as well…then checks the pawn shop and visits the gals at the hair salon. When he’s at the restaurant he can tell just by listening if something is wrong with one of the machines.”
About Elvis. There is plenty of memorabilia at Hal’s associated with The King…along with a display of vintage soda pop bottles and a collection of Pez dispensers in the back of the restaurant that currently numbers more than 300 — a collection that began years ago when Cheerie’s sister gave her a Mickey Mouse dispenser. Having graduated high school in 1963, Cheerie grew up with rock ’n roll (she does admit to flirting with disco some twelve knee surgeries ago), but in many ways Elvis distills what Cheerie and Bob loved best about the ‘50s — and what they work to keep alive at the drive-in.
The King is alive and well in Sedro-Woolley.
“The ‘50s was the greatest decade because people were people,” says Cheerie. “Nobody got offended. Most people went to church. I could ride my horse all day and nobody worried that I might not come home. We’ve tried to make Hal’s a place where you can come to be back to where it was, and we have lived through all of the changes that have come with it. It has been a good time to live, and I’m glad I got to do it when I did.”
So are we, Cheerie and Bob. Thanks for keeping it real…and say hi to Elvis for us.