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Second-Generation Stanich's Owner on 60 Years of Burgers and Paying it Forward

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Image of Stanich's courtesy SonnyDisco via TripAdvisor

For all the awards and accolades that 64-year-old burger joint Stanich's has received in its lifetime, second-generation owner Steve Stanich maintains they've never spent a cent on advertising: When his parents Gladys and George Stanich opened Stanich's in 1949, they began with the mantra, "The best advertising is word of mouth." According to Stanich — and the legions of fans that call Stanich's the best burger in Portland — word of mouth has done the trick. Stanich's now sells about 300 burgers a day, and having arguably invented the bacon burger, its sloppy sandwich stylings have trickled up as high as The Man — McDonald's.

Eater PDX talked to Steve Stanich on the phone while he was in Las Vegas meeting with possible developers of Stanich's mobile trucks. Vegas' vibes notwithstanding, any possibility of a Stanich's expansion is modest: The trucks are to be one-man operations that would allow the employees to buy the trucks and run their own businesses. According to Stanich, his goal for the restaurant isn't to "get rich and famous," but instead continue the altruistic projects started by his parents, like supporting Portland schools and funding Little League baseball fields. "We have a lot of things that we've given to the community," he says, "because the community has given to us." Read on for a brief history of the family behind this legendary Portland burger.

Your mother Gladys and father George opened Stanich's in 1949. Who was the brain behind the burger, and what was it like to grow up in that environment?
Well, first of all, my mom and dad both had other jobs. I was born in 1948, and fortunately or unfortunately I was premature and spent almost a year in an incubator, so my parents opened up Stanich's in '49 to pay off their hospital bill. At the time they borrowed $500 from my grandparents, both sets of grandparents, and my dad was really embarrassed to find out that was every cent they had, so if they hadn't made it, everybody would've been out. So there was a little motivation, because my grandparents had paid off the hospital bills. It started out as a tavern and served burgers. In the '50s, for the most part, women didn't go in taverns. They had their lounges, and only the guys went in [taverns]. In the '60s everything changed... The Oregonian named our burger the world's greatest hamburger — we just call it "great hamburgers." That was an article, and we went from [serving] 20 burgers a day to hundreds.

So how many burgers do you sell today?
Probably 300 burgers or so. It goes up and down. We get a delivery three times a week of fresh-ground chuck. We buy very high-quality meat, and it's not necessarily the good products we use, it's how we prepare it that makes the difference. A lot of people have copied [Stanich's] since the '50s and '60s. Now almost everybody, including McDonald's, puts bacon or ham or something on it. But for whatever reason, people seem to like ours the best.

Who's the most famous person who's come in for a burger?
We've had a lot of them. We've had Michael Jordan, we've had Dan Rather, we've had a lot of people. If you're into sports, we've had a lot of the Trailblazers obviously. Every home game, the Trailblazers order 10 burgers to-go.

In all your years operating and growing up at Stanich's, I'm sure you have some pretty wild stories. I'm wondering if you could tell the funniest, most captivating or raucous thing you've ever seen take place behind Stanich's doors.
Probably the only thing we've had over the years is people that try to take the sports banners off the wall, you know, signed by Michael Jordan or one signed by Muhammad Ali. Every once in a while, some dumb person will say, "Oh, I've gotta have that for my room" and they'll go up and try to take it off the wall. Sometimes we'll be asked to send our burgers dry-iced. 60 Minutes asked us to send our burgers to New York City and we told them they don't travel well, that you'd be better off having them fresh.

Stanich's always gave back the community. We've never advertised, and we were made an example in the '60s [because of that]. We were named "Restaurant of the Year" in the Oregonian and then they got real mad at us because we won't advertise. And instead of advertising, we support 20 Little League teams, we support almost every school in Portland. We believe in giving back to the community. We've been asked to be on TV numerous times and have declined because they wanted to charge us $2,000 and told us we could get rich and famous. So I told them, the best advertising is word of mouth. We'd rather give back to the community, and that's what my parents have always done. What do you call it, paying it forward? Or paying it back? Or whatever. We have little-league baseball teams, a field named George Stanich field. We have a lot of things that we've given to the community, because the community has give to us.

You clearly have legendary status in Portland, so I'm wondering what Stanich's aims for the future are. You're in Vegas right now?
We might put some Stanich's trucks in different places. We believe it's better to give than receive, so what my idea now is to make a couple trucks — it'd be a one-man operation — and then within a year, if that works out, the [one-man employee] would get an opportunity to buy the truck and make his own money. Again, we're figuring out ways to try and give back.
· Stanich's [Official site]
· All Burger Weeek 2013 Coverage [Eater PDX]

— Taylor Thompson


4915 NE Fremont St., Portland, OR