In 2018, Ada County Highway District ripped into the asphalt of the State Highway 44 and Veterans Memorial Parkway intersection. The project held up traffic for months and demolished a local landmark, Smoky Davis. But one business stood firm at the edge of the devastation: Viking Drive-In, a burger stand in operation since the early 1960s.
Four years later, “The Viking” still serves classic fare surrounded by honking cars and fresh concrete. Its survival is part of a long-lived trend: The decades go by, but Boise’s burger stands — including Hawkins Pac Out, Fanci Freez, Westside Drive-In, and Big Bun Drive-In — remain.
Apart from fry sauce, what secret sauce keeps these drive-ins afloat?
Nostalgia You Can Eat
For Bill Hawes and his wife, Alison, who purchased Fanci Freez in 2017, the drive-in’s appeal was deep-rooted nostalgia.
“My mom went to Boise High in the ‘50s and it was like her favorite place,” he said, adding that Fanci Freez’s cross-generational charm and reliably good food have inspired repeat business since 1947. “... We’re close to Boise High, so we get a lot of students [who] come for lunch. There’s a connection made there at that age group, and then those people come back.”
Drive-Thru Time Machines
Adam Chandler, author of “Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom,” offered a macro view.
“We are very much a culture of convenience, but we also know what we like. That can be meaningful when you’re on the road and you want something you know is going to taste the way you like [it]. It’s also meaningful in a time where there's a lot of upheaval and you want something comforting that reminds you of perhaps a different time.”
Louis Aaron’s experience backs that up. He has been chef/owner of Westside Drive-In since 1994, where the restaurant’s crackling speakers and shouted orders harken back to '57.
“Every time there is a crisis in America — when 9/11 happened, or the financial crisis in 2008 happened, or COVID happened — our sales just go through the roof. People want somewhere they can go and have fun and escape that everyday crisis mode,” he said.
Location, Location, Location
One could argue America has been in the midst of turbulent times since the ‘50s, but not every city is bursting with family-owned drive-ins. Boise’s car-friendly layout and location in Mountain West cattle country give it a leg up. Idaho’s cattle provide key ingredients: beef and cheese for burgers, and ice cream for shakes.
“A hamburger is synonymous in a lot of ways with American life and American food,” Chandler said, pointing to the humble burger’s portability and association with the frontier.
Loyal to Local
Teamwork has also played a role in the drive-ins’ success. Aaron recalled a time in the ‘90s when competing owners banded together as the Independent Drive-Inn Restaurants Association. They used their power to win better food prices, but the partnership dissolved by the early 2000s.
Aaron also credited customer support for helping Westside thrive and expand, saying, “I think Boise has a unique attachability to local restaurants.”
In a time when more and more chains are arriving in the City of Trees, we’ll raise a fry to that.