Ask the legion of fanatics of Dick’s Drive-In what they love about Dick’s and what you hear over and over, in addition to the food, is the generational experience served by the Seattle burger institution. As I learned last Thursday in Edmonds at the grand opening of the first Dick’s Drive-In in 37 years, Dick’s serves a whopping portion of feel-good nostalgia with every order and it treats its employees very, very well. I heard that story over and over, and that, in and of itself, makes it a very good storytelling story to share with other business owners no matter how big or small their businesses are.
I was on hand along with Melinda, who spent a good chunk of her childhood in the Seattle area and even confessed to having her first date and break up (only a week apart) at the Queen Anne Dick’s Drive-In. We were there to document the event for Dick’s so they could post the festivities on their website and Facebook page, as well as have a short video for posterity’s sake.
The first person in line for the grand opening arrived at 3 a.m. – 12 ½ hours before the first burgers were served. Why? Because she went to Dick’s with her family every week back in the ’60s on “10 burgers for $1” night – it was such a big part of her childhood. Another woman shared she liked the burgers because they were reliable – “you always know what you’re going to get, and I like that.” Some folks came from as far as Bremerton and Puyallup — “wouldn’t have missed it for the world” because “I’ve been coming to Dick’s as far back as I can remember.” A mother shared she wanted her children to have memories about Dick’s, just like she had back in the ’90s – “that’s why we’re here.” By the time the official ceremony started, more than 500 fanatics were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder on a rainy day to get a glimpse of 88-year-old Dick Spady and gobble down some of his local-legend burgers. If you didn’t know any better – like me – you might have thought royalty was on hand.
I have to say, after spending the afternoon talking to fans, employees and members of the Spady family, I was convinced that Dick Spady is royalty, at least in this little corner of the world.
I grew up in the Connecticut ex-burbs of New York City and spent 23 years in South Florida before moving to Seattle in ’09, and I can’t recall any local institutions, restaurant or otherwise, that had such a loyal and fanatic fan base as Dick’s. There was The Ice Cream Shop (yes, that was the name) in Newtown, CT, that comes closest, but I don’t recall anyone straining through the crowd on opening day to touch the founder’s arm. Although the ice cream was good, the owners never reached the rock-star status I witnessed for Dick Spady.
Case in point, I was filming in the roped-off media area, which eventually became the media-and-everyone-else area moments before the ribbon-cutting ceremony because the crowd was getting antsy. And I was getting worried for Dick Spady’s safety – he was the only thing between the hungry throng and the service windows! The second after Dick cut the ribbon to officially open the new drive-in, the crowd surged forward and, instead of mayhem, adoration ensued. Dozens of people reached out to touch the burger patriarch as if he was a religious healer. As I looked at the teenage girl diving across my left arm in an attempt to touch the back of the elderly Spady’s jacket, she looked at me apologetically and said, “but it’s Dick Spady.”
Hours before the feeding frenzy, Melinda and I went behind the scenes and talked to employees as they readied their stations. Some had worked at Dick’s for several months, others for a handful of years, and others for a lifetime – and despite the harried atmosphere surrounding the day, each and every one of them said they loved working at Dick’s because Dick’s takes care of its employees. Great benefits. Scholarship opportunities. Positive work environment. They l-o-v-e working for the man, and the man is Dick Spady.
What I learned during my seven hours among the Dick’s Drive-In faithful is the aura surrounding Dick’s and the reliable burgers was the emotional connection people have to Dick’s Drive-In.
I don’t know if effective storytelling was a “magic bullet” marketing technique for Dick Spady when he opened the first of his drive-in restaurants back in the ’50s. But his business has survived and thrived because the brand legacy is built on emotional storytelling and not slick marketing or advertising. A good portion of the new location’s launch was driven via social media — voting for the location, sharing clues for the Willy Wonka-esque Orange Ticket contest and construction updates for the Edmonds facility. Dick’s put the message out there and then let the people tell the story via their social media voices. Nothing is more telling than this one post from Tony Yi on Dick’s Facebook page regarding the opening: “At least it’s not snowing like back in Jan 54 at the opening in Wallingford.” Sounds like Tony was there … and remembers it … and is telling the story … via social media … for all to read.
It’s all about people telling stories – positive stories about what Dick’s Drive-In means to them. The masses are doing the marketing work, not the marketing department. That’s when you know you’ve got a good thing going.
Makes me wonder if other businesses out there have stories to tell that are as impactful and as emotionally driven as the one surrounding Dick’s. If they do, I sure hope their customers know about them, too. Makes for good business.