Dick Spady, namesake of Dick's Drive-in, dies at 92

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Dick Spady, the namesake of the Northwest’s best known fast-food restaurant that became as beloved by longtime Seattleites as the Space Needle, died Sunday. He was 92.

“To be successful in the restaurant business,” Spady once said, “the food must taste the same today as it did yesterday, last week or last year.”

While Dick’s adapted to changes through several decades, Spady kept his drive-in restaurants remarkably similar to the first one that opened in January 1954.

French fries are hand cut and milkshakes are still hand dipped, the way he planned his restaurant 62 years ago. For decades, employees tallied order costs by memory, the way they had since day one.

“It’s mainly attitudes,” Spady once told KIRO 7 of Dick’s success. “How you treat your people and work with your people, work with your community -- and to always have a vision of what you’re about.”

Early years in Oregon

Born in 1923, Spady spent his early years in Portland, Oregon, where he delivered copies of the Oregon Journal and also found a job sweeping a grocery store once a week for a dime.

The grocery store job helped form his entrepreneurial spirit: A nickel of his wages would go towards movies in town, the other money was saved -- enough to buy an Emerson radio in the 1930s.

He joined the Navy in 1943 and after the war went to college on the G.I. Bill. After serving in the tropics, he was shipped to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and it was there where Spady met H. Warren Ghormley, who later became one of his business partners, forming Dick’s Drive-In restaurants.

At Oregon State University, Spady joined the Air Force ROTC and was named Distinguished Military Graduate before his 1950 graduation.

The idea for Dick’s Drive-In came after Spady’s visited the Carnival Café in Portland. He saw a stack of burger patties in a refrigerator and learned the café went through that stack and two more in a single day.

He drafted a 17-page business plan and sent it to Ghormley, who loved the idea. The pair also added a third partner, Dr. B.A.O. Thomas. They remained with the restaurant until Spady bought them out in 1991.

The first location in Wallingford

After visiting California to observe fast food restaurants there, Spady moved to Seattle in September 1953 and borrowed funds for his $5,000 share to start the restaurant.

He found the first location on 45th Avenue Northeast after studying traffic patterns, wanting to be close to the University of Washington and between rival high schools, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

The first Dick’s opened Jan. 28, 1954, and made a profit the first month.

Onions were only served on cheeseburgers the first day. After seeing them all over the floor, Spady’s business partner insisted they charge for them.

Onions, ketchup and tartar sauce still sell for 5 cents a cup.

The Broadway store opened the following year, then Holman Road in 1960, Lake City in 1963, Queen Anne in 1974. For a short time there also was a restaurant near Bellevue Square, which opened in 1965.

Spady was a celebrity for the October 2011 opening of the Edmonds location, chosen by an online survey that gained more than 115,000 votes.

He was joined by his wife at 56 years at the time, Lou, and sons, John, Jim and Walt, all whom worked in different roles at Dick’s. Their daughter, Carol, is a retired school teacher in Maine.

Spady also is survived by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Part of what set Dick’s apart -- and one of the things Spady was most proud of -- was the benefits for employees. From the start, pay was always ahead of minimum wage.

Employees working at least 24 hours a week receive full employer-paid medical insurance, and staff enrolled in college while working part-time receive $22,000 toward a four-year degree. Spady’s company also paid for community volunteer work.

The Change for Charity program, started in 1999 with collection jars at each drive-in counter, generated more than $390,000 through June 2010. Family said in lieu of flowers or cards, donations in memory of Spady could be made to Change for Charity.

Spady received the Seattle Municipal League’s Business of the Year Award in 2005 and the Outstanding Philanthropic Small Business Award in 2000. The final responsibility of a successful business, he said, is building a sustainable community to help the common good.

“We are only as successful as the satisfaction of those we serve.”