Past Times

Burger joints battled it out on Raleigh’s Downtown Boulevard

The 15-cent burger sparked fierce competition.
The 15-cent burger sparked fierce competition. N&O Photo

In 1963, the highway leading north out of downtown Raleigh was called Downtown Boulevard, and it was ground zero for competition among fledgling fast-food operations. Writer Bill McAllister examined the impact of this new player on the restaurant scene.

In the past four years, wide highways, heavy vehicular traffic and a lot of hot kitchens have combined to produce a veritable revolution in the eating habits of many Tar Heels.

And in the process, the change has sparked some of the State’s most fierce sales competition.

Cause of all the contention?

A simple one- to two-ounce patty of ground meat ballyhooed as “Charco-burger,” “Charburger” and “Big Boy,” but best known simply as the hamburger.

During this period, the hamburger in all its varied forms, weights, mixtures and names, has grown so popular no one can doubt but that hot cakes, hot dogs, barbecue and – alas – that standard of Southern culinary, fried chicken, have taken a back seat to Wimpy’s favorite treat.

An estimated 10,000 hamburgers are ground out daily – on a mass production scale – by about half a dozen places in Raleigh. Most of these places in no way resemble the “greasy spoon” grills where one formerly was more likely to find the ’burger sizzling in grease.

In fact, because of the number of ’burgers now being sold here in the Capital City, there’s no question but that there is a “new” staple in the diet of thousands ranking with such established items as nickel candy bars and peanut butter cracker sandwiches.

The vast majority of Raleigh’s hamburgers are scattered on the wide grills of five glass-enclosed stands on Downtown Boulevard where rough-and-tumble competition has turned the 1.7 mile stretch into a battleground.

There you can get one for anywhere from 10 cents (on certain days) to 55 cents. The latter is a two-deck job which is both a plain hamburger and a cheeseburger.

Raleigh’s hamburger boom started about four years ago when a Norfolk, Va., chain opened a stand on the boulevard and undercut the local hamburger price with a combination “Charco-burger” and an order of french fried potatoes, all for 35 cents. …

Approximately a year after the first hamburger haven appeared on the scene, another sprang up on Hillsboro Street that was so similar in design and menu, owners of the initial business went to court and sought an order to change the newcomer’s operations. The case is still pending in Federal Court.

Only 18 months ago the competition took two diverse twists. A national chain which features a hamburger costing 40 cents moved undaunted onto the boulevard battlefield. Six months later another chain offering a 15-cent hamburger opened there.

What surprised many observers is that both businesses have survived and each now claims to be doing about the same volume of business, selling 1,500 to 2,000 hamburgers every day. …

One business compelled to make a drastic change was the once prosperous Piggy Park Drive-In, a favorite hangout for many Raleigh teenagers attracted by its on-the-spot rock ’n’ roll radio show.

But when a place offering a cheaper priced hamburger was set up across the boulevard, Piggy Park’s owners soon discovered their premises had become a sort of concert amphitheater – with refreshments coming from across the way.

It wasn’t long before the Piggy Park had been completely renovated and turned into a place able to grind out 15-cent hamburgers at the rate of 24 every three minutes. And they added something “new” – fried chicken – to the battle for the nearly 40,000 cars that flow along the boulevard every day.

Not yet has its sales started to equal those at the other place.

Although the business may seem relatively easy to enter, the initial expense can be steep. The equipment that went into one of Raleigh’s newest stands is said to have cost about $75,000.

But volume – not equipment – is the key to success. Several stands carry the ideal of specialization to the point of assigning men to such tasks as taking orders, fixing drinks, preparing french fries, cooking and wrapping.

And there is even a man who peels potatoes, although his work is made lighter with an automatic peeler one stand uses to produce a daily supply of about 400 pounds of french fries.

There are also catsup and mustard men who employ a special guntype dispenser that shoots out the seasoning at the touch of a handle. An estimated 30 gallons of seasoning is used each day along the boulevard.

Working a crew of seven men, one stand boasts it can turn out hamburgers at the rate of 48 every two and one-half minutes.

As for the profit margin, itself, that’s as closely a guarded secret as the mixture of Cape Canaveral’s missile fuels. The N&O July 21, 1963

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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