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Oregon's Lost Summer Hangouts

The Enduring Life Of Salem's Bob's Hamburgers

Bob’s Hamburgers, a regional fast-food chain, has gained a massive cult following in the years since it closed in 2001.  Now, its fans just might be able to bring it back to life.

In 1954, Bob Corey’s life was changed by a conversation with customers at his restaurant who had been to California. At a time when Corey’s Fountain Lunch was selling 10 pounds of hamburger a week, they told him about a chain of restaurants called McDonald’s selling 100 pounds of hamburger — a day.

A year later, Bob Corey opened his own fast-food restaurant, Bob’s 19-cent Hamburgers. The highlight of the Salem shop was a hamburger pressed between two toasted buns with a secret sauce pouring out from the sides.

The chain grew regionally. At its peak, there were 18 locations across the state.

“It was the main hangout in the summer,” remembers Allen Wright. “That’s where all your friends would be in summer on a Saturday night. If you were bored, that’s what you did — got a couple of friends together and went to Bob’s.”

For teenagers in Salem during the ’50s through the ’80s, Bob’s was the spot. The flagship location was on Capitol Street, off 99 East. Teens from all around the area would come to Salem to “cruise the gut.”

Cruising the G.U.T — “going up town” — involved teenagers driving a parade of muscle cars and parents’ station wagons through downtown Salem. Cruising the gut wasn’t unique to Salem, it was happening all over state and nation. Wright compared the scene to the movie American Graffiti. But on Saturday night, in Salem, Bob’s was at the heart of it all. It’s where everyone went to park, hang out and eat.

Wright got a job at Bob’s when he was 14 years old. He remembers meeting Bob Corey for the first time at the drive-through. Corey drove through, signed for his ice cream cones, then turned to the 14-year-old and said, “You did a fantastic job. You have a lot of potential at Bob’s.” Wright remembers the moment fondly.

Maybe Corey saw something: Wright ended up working at Bob’s for the next 21 years.

The job was alluring. It had the gravitational pull of the teenage social circle. It also paid well. Managers in the late ’80s made $30,000 (by today’s standards that’s around $63,000) a year plus full health insurance. But Wright says he stayed because Corey treated his employees well. Bob’s Hamburgers offered opportunity for mobility and fun. 

Wright met his wife, a co-worker, at Bob’s. He climbed the ladder to become the office manager for the company. To him it wasn’t a fast food joint; it was an important fixture in the community. “There was a lot of pride working at Bob’s,” says Wright. “McDonald’s was a fast-food restaurant. Bob’s was a family restaurant.”

An old Bob's Hamburger billboard in Salem.

An old Bob’s Hamburger billboard in Salem.

Courtesy of Allen Wright

Like Allen Wright, Gina Dankenbring was also 14 when she started working at Bob’s. She loved it. By 18 years old, she was promoted to the general manager of the flagship Capitol Street location.

“I was a young single mom — I had a baby and I had Bob’s.” With her manager’s salary and health insurance, she was able to afford a car, an apartment, pay for college courses and put money away.

Corey sold the company in 1990. “After 35 years in the business and being 70, I had put in half of my life into the creation and operation of Bob’s,” he says. “I felt like it would be good to create some opportunities for others.”

The company ended up changing hands twice before closing in 2001. In retrospect, Corey says selling the company was “a disaster, the biggest mistake of my life.”

By then both Dankenbring and Wright had already left. Dankenbring started a concession business. Wright got a job with Pepsi. But neither could completely close the door on Bob’s.

When Bob’s Capitol location in Salem closed, Wright wanted to be there. He worked the drive through, selling the last Bob’s hamburger.  He was working the drive-through. “I told Bob later that day, ‘You had the honor of serving the very first burger; I had the pleasure of serving the last.’”

In the 13 years since it closed, Bob’s Burgers has gained a cult following.

A Facebook page was started in 2009 and has since grown to over 3,000 followers. On it people share memories of working or eating at the restaurant, and tips on how to re-create a perfect burger (one involves leaving McDonald’s hamburgers in a car for a few hours). Others place orders as if the page were a drive-through window.

Dankenbring was never able to let go of her experience at Bob’s. With the momentum of the Facebook page, and her belief in the company, she saw an opportunity. Through the Corey family, she secured the rights to use the logos and recipes of the beloved chain.

This summer she did just that. Dankenbring resurrected Bob’s Hamburgers. She opened a Bob’s Burger booth at two county fairs: the Salem Hoopla and Marion County Fair. At the smaller Marion fair, she was surprised by its success.

Basketball player Rick Barry was a paid spokesperson for Bob's Hamburgers.

Basketball player Rick Barry was a paid spokesperson for Bob’s Hamburgers.

Courtesy of Allen Wright

“Crowds of diehard Bob’s fans waited in long lines in 97 degree weather and pouring rain, thunder and lightening,” says Dankenbring. The booth sold more than 7,000 hamburgers that weekend.

Dankenbring will have a booth at the Oregon County Fair later this August. She’s not saying what’s in the works after that, like whether she’ll open a new restaurant. If she does, she wants to re-create what made it special.

“I would want to do it right,” Dankenbring says. She imagines building it from the ground up and hosting cruising nights in the parking lot.

Wright is skeptical that a new generation of Bob’s Hamburgers could surpass its former success. “Bob’s was a fast-food chain. I doubt it could make it in this fast-food market,” she says. But Wright believes an idea like Dankenbring’s could work.

“It would need to be something that fed on that nostalgia,” says Wright. “Everyone is after having that taste again. I keep seeing people say, ‘My kids never had a Bob’s. I want my kids to experience a Bob’s burger.’ You would have to make it that experience.”

Bob’s Hamburgers is still a popular topic of conversation for many who ate and worked there. Do you have a great memory of Bob’s? Share below! Or join the live conversation on Think Out Loud, Thursday August 14 at 12pm.

Editor’s Note - August 14, 2014: A previous version of this article stated Dankenbring bought the rights to the chain. In fact, she was given exclusive permissive rights to use logos, recipes and the rest of the Bob’s Hamburger brand.