September 1, 2004 in City

Joe Genova, founder of Ron’s Drive-In, dies

By The Spokesman-Review
Holly Pickett photo

Jim Genova digs into a “Big R” burger at Ron’s Drive-In with brother Ron Genova on Tuesday afternoon.
(Full-size photo)

Ron’s Drive-In founder Joe Genova, credited for simultaneously introducing Spokane Valley to fast-food hamburgers and teenagers to cruise night, died Monday at age 89.

His was among Spokane Valley’s first drive-in restaurants, a 30-foot-by-30-foot stainless steel kitchen encircled by glass windows and, on Saturday nights, throngs of teenagers. A burger, Coke and fries cost less than 50 cents.

“It reminded me of ‘Happy Days,’ ” said Bonita Cox, who worked the counter at Ron’s as a teen in the 1970s. “Usually the kids would come in after a football game and get something to eat and then just hang out and visit for hours, sometimes until 1 a.m.,” a full hour after Ron’s closed.

The kids seldom got out of hand. But when they did, Genova would emerge from the kitchen to break things up. On more than one occasion, according to family members, Genova would wade into a mass of teens to break up a fight. “Go find yourself a girlfriend,” he would say. Everyone listened to the restaurateur with the medium-sized build.

Genova opened the business in 1958 and operated it for 37 years. A father of four, he named the business in honor of his eldest son. The original drive-in gave way to a building with indoor seating in 1979. Genova sold the business to Denny Hegewald in 1995.

When Ron’s opened, Genova was a produce vendor on Spokane’s North Side who was facing competition from a major grocery store and decided to try something new. He had an eighth-grade education and knew nothing about restaurants.

“I’ll never forget the remark he made when he opened the business,” said Helen Ronayne, Genova’s sister. “He said, ‘I don’t know anything about frying a hamburger.’ But he had the land and he had the smarts and the head to make it go.”

The land, one block east of Pines Road on Sprague, was the Genova family homestead, a place Joe Genova’s immigrant Italian parents farmed when he was a child.

Genova razed the family home, then constructed a life-sized version of the model he’d built in his basement. Even with the traffic rolling down Sprague Avenue the restaurant was less than a sure bet.

“People were certain it wouldn’t make it because the freeway had just opened,” said Ron Genova, who stopped by the drive-in for an R-burger with his brother, Jim. The family gathered Tuesday to plan Genova’s 10 a.m. Friday funeral at St. John Vianney Catholic Church.

But the big “R” on the neon sign over the drive-in became as synonymous with hamburgers in Spokane Valley as the Golden Arches.

Joe Genova’s youngest son, Jim, who lives in the Seattle area, said even on the West Side of the state he gets flashes of recognition from strangers when he mentions Ron’s Drive-In.

Ron Genova, who eventually became his father’s restaurant partner, said in the past customers from Alaska had ordered burgers and them flown north to be sampled by friends.

Ron’s burgers were special, Jim Genova said, because his father scrutinized every ingredient. For 37 years, Joe Genova began every day in Ron’s kitchen hand-selecting and slicing tomatoes. It was work for a prep cook, not the owner of a business, but Joe Genova wanted to personally approve every slice. His work days frequently began at 8 a.m. and didn’t end for 12 hours.

“Back in the old days, when the vendors would bring in the buns and the meat, I’d see Joe and Ron make them take the buns back because they were so particular,” said Cox, who worked at Ron’s.

It was hard getting Joe Genova to retire, Ron Genova said. In the 10 years after retiring, Genova never had enough to do.

“He was there until the last day” before retirement, Ron Genova said. “We told him, ‘Dad, you got to leave, otherwise we’re going to end up carrying you out of here.’”

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