Whatever happened to ... Dee’s Drive-Ins

Editor's note: In this regular series, The Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

Long before Utah ever attracted a McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's, dozens of Dee's Drive-Ins covered the state. Their giant electric clown signs swayed side to side holding plastic balloons as they advertised Deeburgers, shakes, hot dogs and fries.

At its height, Dee's had more than 50 drive-ins plus a related chain of family restaurants — and 1,200 employees. It even had a franchise in faraway South Africa, that nation's first fast-food restaurant. Dee's was imported there by people who served LDS Church missions and had fallen in love with Deeburgers in Utah.

In 1982 — 33 years ago — Dee's Drive-Ins was sold to Hardee's. Because of later sales and transfers, some of the old, remodeled drive-in buildings now are part of the Carl's Jr. or Apollo Burger chains, some are Mexican restaurants and others have disappeared.

Dee Anderson, who died in 1997, founded Dee's. He wrote an autobiography that told the story of his life and eateries, titled "A Boy From Ephraim."

Early businesses • Anderson's food career started at age 16, when he decided to run a concession stand during the Black Hawk Reunion carnival in his hometown of Ephraim.

"Mother cooked the hamburger, and she made what would be known today as a sloppy Joe," Anderson wrote. "Even the carnival people who sold hamburgers or other foods would come and eat with me. I had such fine home cooking."

He earned more money than he had ever seen. "I guess I learned early that everybody likes a good hamburger, and the best sound of the carnival was when people said, 'Let's go to Dee's.' "

He later would have an iconic jingle on musical ads that started by singing the words, "Let's go to Dee's." The clowns on Dee's Drive-Ins signs reflected the spirit of that early Ephraim carnival.

Anderson and a friend would later operate the concession stand at Salt Lake City's Nibley Park Golf Course, another at the Fort Douglas Golf Course, and a concession at the city's Coconut Grove dance hall.

Then Anderson decided to go into business by himself, and started his first Dee's in 1932 — in a building that was 15 feet wide and 30 feet long with a row of stools at 444 S. Main in Salt Lake City.

The featured hamburgers were 5 cents each, or six for a quarter, and he also served breakfast. He wrote that he often worked from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.

He would later relocate, and opened additional small hamburger restaurants on Main Street, Regent Street and in Sugar House, which featured soft-serve ice cream machines that were among the first in the state.

First drive-in • But things really changed when he saw his first real drive-in while on vacation in Long Beach, Calif., in 1953.

Within a year, he opened his first true drive-in at 753 E. 2100 South — and it was popular.

Anderson wrote that its formula for success included "absolute cleanliness, a menu of family favorites, fast service, quality food and modest prices."

He added, "We could cook 43 hamburgers every four minutes and prepare 1,500 orders of french fries per hour." He said its motto was "One minute per customer, one customer per minute." On an average day, the new drive-in served 2,500 people.

He added, "The drive-in featured five walk-up windows with a cash register at each one. The menu included hamburgers 19 cents, cheeseburgers 24 cents, hot dogs 19 cents, apple turnovers 19 cents, french fries 10 cents, shakes 21 cents, soft drinks 10 cents."

He wrote that such prices and service later would seem old hat as Americans grew accustomed to fast food. "But in 1954, it was decidedly new. It was deliciously different."

In 1959, he added a drive-in at 837 W. North Temple. In 1961, he added another at 33rd South and Highland Drive. Soon he expanded around the state — and in 1968 he even sold a franchise in South Africa.

Anderson was also involved in other business ventures, including starting a chain of family restaurants, building the Continental Motel on North Temple in Salt Lake City and striking it rich in a uranium mine partnership.

He served as president and a longtime board member of the Utah State Restaurant Association.

He said that group "went after the 'greatest guy in the world' — the dad who took his family out to dinner. We created an image of this man's adoring children eating healthful food and learning good manners, and of his wife who had to cook three times a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year — unless she was married to the greatest guy in the world."

Fighting McDonald's • Anderson wrote that he worried about quick-growing McDonald's and the day that chain would eventually come to Utah — especially because at the time Dee's was selling hamburgers for 21 cents each and McDonalds charged 15 cents. His accountants told him he would go broke selling at that lower price.

As a preemptive strike, he started selling hamburgers for 15 cents each on the slow days of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and sales volume increased. When McDonald's started building its first Utah drive-in in Provo, Dee's started selling hamburgers for 15 cents every day.

"Fortunately, our CPA was wrong. We didn't go broke. Dee's continued to make an excellent profit," Anderson wrote.

He added that when some early McDonald's in Utah struggled, their owners called him. "They wanted to buy us out. McDonald's made a very attractive offer. But we weren't interested."

He added, "McDonald's continued to build new locations. So did we. Instead of hurting us, they helped us greatly. They kept us at our best and gave us new ideas."

But eventually after Anderson had retired and other family members took over, Dee's did sell out to Hardee's.

In his autobiography, Anderson wrote that after his retirement he dreamed of maybe starting another little ice cream shop and hamburger stand to focus on what he thought too many drive-ins had lost: a focus on slower, good, home-style food.

"We've lost touch with the good things," he lamented. "Today everything is mechanically done — in the fastest way, but sometimes not in the best way."

He wrote of dreams of offering ice cream with "good butterfat and lots of nuts and fruit." He added, "If I didn't make money, that would be all right because I would have fun. I like the business."


Twitter: @LeeHDavidson

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Courtesy photo Dee's Drive-In.

Courtesy photo Dee's Restaurant.

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Courtesy photo

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