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Here, you can have it their way

Sat., March 10, 2007

Perhaps it’s the stories – not the secret-recipe hot mustard or fresh beef – that has kept the gas grill fired at Hudson’s Hamburgers for 100 years.

Brothers Todd and Steve Hudson are the fourth generation to run the Sherman Avenue fixture that has operated within the same block since their great-grandfather Harley Hudson set up a white canvas tent in 1907.

On a recent snowy March morning, Todd Hudson unlocked the alley door of the low-slung downtown building and was greeted by the acidic air of pickles and onions.

It’s likely the same smell that met Harley Hudson, his son Howard Hudson and Todd’s father Roger Hudson – the men who ensured that Coeur d’Alene’s hamburger tradition never faltered, even through the Depression, McDonald’s moving downtown, the mad-cow scare and every fad diet of the last decade.

“(Our) job is just to not screw it up,” Todd said while going through the morning setup that allows him to throw a hand-formed patty of beef on the grill when the first customer of the day wanders in at 9:30 a.m.

Yep, burgers for breakfast, often chased by a slice of pie. Don’t forget the coffee.

Just then the back door creaked open and a retired miner walked in.

Story time begins.

Nearly every Hudson’s customer, and even those who dislike the place where ignorant newcomers who ask for fries are banished, has a tale about the oldest restaurant in the county.

And if they don’t have a story, their personality becomes part of the magic that makes Hudson’s so endearing. Nobody ever knows who will be fighting for elbow space at the narrow lunch counter. Many mayors, present and past, frequent the place, along with laborers in Carhartt’s and camouflage jackets, women in power suits and a movie actor or two.

Todd winked and whispered, “Same prescription, bet you money.” He slapped a single burger on the clean grill, which by 11 a.m. is crowded and heavily greased.

And that’s exactly what the miner ordered: “Same prescription,” the man called out as he approached the long bar with 17 stools.

Most regulars, and there are many, have no need to order.

Instead of a mirror and rows of booze bottles, these bar patrons watch hamburgers sizzle and pop on the grill and eye the cook’s skill at slicing whole pickles and onions.

The old miner is colorful, full of character – the type who thinks nothing odd about having a hamburger with his morning coffee.

When asked how long he’s been eating at Hudson’s, he shrugs.

“I don’t know, since Christ was a kid,” said the old man, who didn’t want to give up his name.

He took the cheeseburger to go, forgoing the three famed sauce choices: ketchup, spicy ketchup and hot mustard.

“I like spicy girls, not spicy hamburgers,” he said. “That’s my last words of wisdom I’m putting out today.”

He leaves a nickel and penny tip. It’s a typical morning at Huddy’s.

Gruffness a tradition

The homemade sauces are like everything else at Hudson’s: take it or leave it.

When Harley Hudson first opened, he offered mustard and ketchup as condiments. But during the Depression, people were using too much sauce, adding ketchup to cups of water to make a free soup that would fill their hungry bellies.

The shrewd businessman had a cure: a dose of secret spice. Todd said it worked – people stopped using as much sauce.

Hudson’s youngest customer hasn’t yet embraced the secret toppings. Asia Borges, who turns 2 in April, flirts with Todd as she gulps down her burger, extra pickle.

Her addiction started in the womb.

Todd brags that pregnant women have a “thing” for Hudson’s. It’s the kosher dills.

“She doesn’t even know what McDonald’s is,” said Asia’s mom, Jessica Borges. “To her it’s just a song.”

The only thing that has changed at Hudson’s since Harley sold his first sandwich – likely the first hamburger in Coeur d’Alene – is the price. A hamburger sold for 10 cents in 1907. Today a single costs $2. Add 30 cents for cheese.

The hamburgers have stayed the same: simple, no frills. A fresh beef patty sits between a white bun lightly dabbed in grill grease. Hudson’s doesn’t complicate the menu with options. And there are basic rules that customers must follow. It can be an intimidating dining experience.

Don’t ask for fries. Don’t ask for lettuce and tomato. Don’t ask for mayonnaise or a milkshake.

If you do, it will only happen once. Hudson’s is notorious for kicking out demanding customers.

Emil Johnson, 94, can attest to the consistency of the Hudson hamburger. He starting eating them at age 13, in 1926.

“I liked them better then because I was hungrier,” Johnson said while waiting for his sandwich with just pickle and onion, no cheese and a splash of spicy ketchup.

Back then he cut wood and hauled hay. Now he’s retired and only comes in about once a month, when he gets downtown to cash a check.

It’s these people Todd Hudson cherishes most in a job that many might think is just for high school kids working for gas money.

“It just makes me giggle,” Hudson said. “I love it.”

Most burger connoisseurs know not to linger once their saucer-size plates are clean. The story goes that Howard Hudson, who always smoked a pipe while he worked, ousted a man who had eaten six hamburgers but wanted to stay to finish his coffee.

“Go stand against the wall,” Howard allegedly barked. “There’re people waiting.”

Gruffness is a family tradition and part of the lively story of generational ownership.

Todd, who started working at age 10, fondly recalls his father and grandfather bickering. So do the customers. Todd also said that for years he butted heads with Steve. Now the brothers split up the week and don’t usually work the same days.

The quick temper showed on Feb. 13, the random day Hudson’s picked to celebrate its 100th birthday by rolling back prices to 1907.

With no advertising or advance warning, the place was as packed as it is on regular, not-so-special days. It was hot and a dozen people stood along the wall waiting for a stool and the chance to buy five-cent coconut pie.

A woman at the counter groused about her slice of creamy pie and questioned if the business really started in 1907, when Coeur d’Alene’s sidewalks were wood planks, and when steamboats, not jet boats, ruled the shoreline. At the time the Desert Hotel, not the Coeur d’Alene Resort, defined the skyline.

“If you are going to debate it you’re going to have to pay full price,” Todd said, jabbing a finger at the woman.

She took a bite of pie and Todd continued explaining that the family has searched business records for nearly two years and could never pinpoint the exact date Harley opened his tent, then called Missouri Kitchen.

Tessa Weston, who has worked the counter for three years and considers herself quasi-Hudson family, broke in to comment on Todd’s outburst.

“We say ‘no’ a lot here,” she explained without hint of apology. “It’s our favorite word.”

And you better have cash. Hudson’s doesn’t take plastic and it’s questionable if they will accept a local check.

Nothing Hudson’s Hamburgers does is textbook or a model for any business plan. Who says the customer is always right?

Todd got a “D” on a University of Idaho marketing paper when he wrote about the restaurant’s business strategy of having no advertising budget, no menu changes and no extended hours.

“That Thanksgiving my professor came up and ate here,” Hudson said. “He changed it to a B-plus.”

It’s a recipe recognized by the Idaho Legislature when lawmakers in January signed a proclamation honoring the hamburger institution’s longevity. Todd said it was one of his proudest days, something so big that even his 8-year-old daughter caught the significance.

No pressure on youngest

Todd and Steve Hudson have many days ahead of them at the grill. Yet they are often asked if their children will take on the family business.

Todd, 43, swears that there’s never pressure on any of the generations. Steve’s son is the oldest of the fifth generation and, at age 20, is itching to leave Coeur d’Alene to join the Air Force. Anything but hamburgers is on his mind.

Todd said he suffered the same curse and traveled the country doing construction work. While back East in April 1989, a copy of USA Today caught his attention. There in a corner of the front page was a photo of his dad and brother standing in front of the grill. The headline read: “Hudson’s Secret: Sauces.”

Two framed copies of the article hang in the restaurant, along with photos of early Coeur d’Alene, the lake’s steamboat and memorabilia from the hydroplane races that were banned in the late 1960s.

There’s no question that the business is lucrative and has earned a generous living for the generations of Hudsons, even though it’s a topic no one wants to discuss in detail. The farthest Todd will go is to say that his great-grandfather Harley was a brilliant businessman.

And time has proven that the other Hudsons share the same legacy.


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