VANCOUVER, Wash. – Let the burger wars begin.
If you live in Tacoma and get a hankering for cherry limeade from Sonic, America’s Drive-In, you have to drive at least 140 miles south to try one.
Just ask Sgt. Marc Barton, stationed at Fort Lewis with the 3rd Brigade. He’s done it. More than once.
If your mouth waters instead for Burgerville’s Tillamook cheeseburger, you need to drive at least 54 miles south to Centralia.
Just ask Alicia Manley Lawver and Sarah Champion, two Tacoma professionals. They’ve done it.
None of them will have to drive great distances for much longer.
Construction started last week on the Puget Sound region’s first Sonic drive-in just south of Puyallup.
Now, Burgerville’s president and CEO Jeff Harvey says his company spent the last five years building corporate capacity for an aggressive, significant expansion of its drive-ins in the Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle region, beginning this year.
“Let Tacoma know we’ll be there before you know it,” Harvey said.
I couldn’t wait.
Last weekend I took a two-stop road trip: to the Sonic in Vancouver and the Burgerville 20 miles away in Gresham, Ore.
Until this trip, I had never eaten at either establishment. You inspired me to do it.
Lawver, a communication specialist for the City of Tacoma, regularly proselytizes via electronic messages to her online social networks – Facebook and Twitter – about the gastronomic virtues of Burgerville.
“You’re talking to the woman leading a ‘Move North Burgerville Campaign’ via Twitter,” Lawver said.
It must have worked.
“Some say I’m obsessed. … I say I’m campaigning,” Lawver wrote in one of her 11 e-mails to me.
Champion, meanwhile, stumbled on Burgerville after her relatives moved to Vancouver in 2003.
“I’m kind of like a snob when it comes to fast food,” said Champion, marketing and strategy manager for SiteCrafting, a Tacoma Web site design and development company.
“At first it was a flavor thing for me. It tastes good. But as I learned more about the company – the values, the seasonal foods, they’re big into buying from local businesses and farms – it became a brand thing, too,” Champion said.
And a sauce thing.
Harvey calls it “secret sauce that’s not really a secret anymore.” The company uses it as the main condiment on its burgers and sells it by the 16-ounce jar in the restaurants and on its Web site.
“It’s really addicting stuff,” Champion said.
When you talk addiction, Sgt. Barton says absence makes the stomach grow fonder for the Sonic menu he grew up on in Belton, Mo., population 22,000.
And when he deploys to Iraq – for the third time – in August, he wonders aloud if Sonic would send along a ration of its cherry limeade syrup so his unit could mix their own slushes. (We’ll find out.)
“It’s been killing me that there isn’t a Sonic here,” Sgt. Barton said.
“The wife and I drove down to the one in Hillsboro, Ore, a couple of weeks ago. And of course, we covered our true reason for the trip by saying we were taking the kids to the Portland zoo,” he said. “You have to have an alibi; otherwise, it sounds crazy to people.”
Not to me.
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785
Tagline: America’s Drive-In
Founded: 1953 in Shawnee, Okla.
Headquarters: Oklahoma City
Restaurants: More than 3,500 coast to coast
Historical note: Started as Top Hat Drive-In, then renamed Sonic in 1959
Ownership: Publicly traded as SONC; 150 institutional investors control 97 percent of stock; $805 million annual revenue in 2008
Leadership: J. Clifford Hudson, chairman, CEO; W. Scott McLain, president
Claims to fame: Range of drinks, including custom flavored soft drinks, limeades, slushes and smoothies; roller-skating carhop service
Closest restaurant: Vancouver, Wash.
Expansion news: 15 future drive-ins in the Puget Sound region, including South Hill (Puyallup) opening in mid-April; next in Bonney Lake, Maple Valley
On Facebook: 50,600 fans
Why it’s better than Burgerville: Breadth of innovative drinks and meals; breakfast served all day; retro carhop service; happy hour on drinks from 2-4 p.m. SONIC or Burgerville?
You decide. Go online to thenewstribune.com to vote for your choice of Sonic or Burgerville as the best drive-in. Then click on Dan Voelpel’s column to leave your comments. Burgerville
Tagline: Fresh, local, sustainable
Founded: 1961 in Vancouver, Wash., by George Propstra as Burgerville USA
Restaurants: 39 in Portland and Southwest Washington
Historical note: The concept grew from The Holland Creamery, founded in Vancouver by Dutch immigrant Jacob Propstra in 1926.
Ownership: Privately held by Propstra heirs as The Holland Inc.
Leadership: Tom Mears, chairman; Jeff Harvey, president, CEO
Claims to fame: Sustainable business practices, including 70 percent of menu sourced from local farms, ranches; powers restaurants with 100 percent wind power
Closest restaurant: Centralia
Expansion news: “Significant” expansion plans for Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle region beginning this year; specific sites and drive-ins unannounced
On Facebook: 6,484 fans
Why it’s better than Sonic: Buying Burgerville means buying into its sustainable business practices and investing in local and regional beef and produce producers; tasty vegetarian options and locally sourced seasonal menu. notes on Dan Voelpel’s taste-testing road trip
No indoor dining. Had patio tables in covered outdoor space with heaters. Greatest wealth of menu options ever seen at fast food restaurant, including breakfast meals you can order any time of day. Fun novelty – like old A&W drive-ins – of ordering from the car by push-button speaker. But no tray that hooks onto car window, which would have been an improvement over eating from a sack. Can insert credit card conveniently in menu sign. SuperSONIC cheeseburger almost melts intimately in the mouth – with lettuce pieces, onions, tomato slice and two pickles. “The Works” means catsup, mustard and mayo. Could get hooked on the cherry limeade, but order the diet version; it tastes as sweet as the regular. Fries come unsalted and a bit bland and too dry/cardboardy-textured for my liking. Oh my, the banana cream milkshake! Tastes like a pie slice whipped into a cup. Bits of graham crackers throughout and on top. Dense rich cream topping (yum). Carhop steady on rollerblades. Do you tip them? I didn’t.
Indoor dining with a partial nod in décor to 1950s diner. Admire commitment in signage to buying most ingredients from Northwest farms, ranches and dairies. All B-villes 100 percent powered by corporate investments in wind power. Wide-ranging menu, including seasonal items that change every two months. Now, waffle-cut Yukon Gold potato fries and a vegetarian Yukon and white bean basil burger. A smoked salmon salad at fast-food restaurant? Colossal cheeseburger comes with proprietary mayo and pickle relish-based sauce that overpowered rest of burger, tomato slice, lettuce leaf and pickle slices. Not necessarily in a bad way. Fries tasty but slightly limp and greasy. Thick Black Forest milkshake reminiscent of Black Forest cake, though whipping cream from a can seemed like a less-fancy-than-expected topper.
If forced to choose Burgerville or SONIC for my last meal? SONIC.
Dan Voelpel, The News Tribune