Here’s a (Texas) Toast to the Onion Ring and the Girl in the Swing

It is the story of five men, two pioneering fast-food chains, and one kiss.

Do you remember the little diners of the Rockyfeller Hamburger System? A Rockyfeller diner was what Hemingway might call “a clean, well-lighted place,” albeit nothin’ fancy: a small metal portable building, a window air-conditioner (maybe), a single row of vinyl-seated stools, a jukebox, a pay phone, a modest menu (hash browns, bowl of chili, ham and eggs, double-meat cheeseburger with Rocky Sauce).

Everything about Rockyfeller diners said “speed”: Efficient staff dishing out short-order food to diners who perched for a few minutes on stools in a pre-fab building just a few steps from the sidewalk or car they had walked in from. And if they didn’t have time to sit down, for years Rockyfeller sold five hamburgers for a buck. A company slogan: “Buy them by the sack.”

For sixty years Rockyfeller’s hash-and-dash business model worked, worked well enough that Rockyfellers are fondly remembered decades later by truck drivers and debutantes, by paper boys and businessmen.

Rockyfellers were among the earliest of the come-as-you-are, come-night-or-day diners, established just a few years after the Koutsoubos family’s Famous Hamburgers diner that we remember on the corner of Main and 1st streets downtown and long before drive-in restaurants such as Carlson’s and the Clover, long before McDonald’s, Mr. Quick, Griff’s, or Dairy Queen. (See Cowtown Yoostabes, Chow-Down Edition: Coney Islands, Carhops, and DQs.)

rocky 28 legal notice chesney youngmeyer

The Rockyfeller story begins in the 1920s. According to this legal notice, by 1928 the chain was in business as Robert H. Chesney and E. W. Youngmeyer “of Fort Worth” changed the name of their company from “Rockyfeller System” to “Rockyfeller Hamburger System.” This is the earliest local reference to the Rockyfeller system I have found. rocky 28 cdThe 1928 city directory lists Youngmeyer with one of the two Fort Worth Rockyfellers. But if Fort Worth had only diners nos. 10 and 15, where were the others? I find no Rockyfeller diners listed in Dallas, Houston, Austin, or San Antonio at that time. Also, I can find no evidence that Robert H. Chesney and E. W. Youngmeyer actually lived in Fort Worth. But a Robert Hamlin Chesney (1894-1977) and an Earl W. Youngmeyer (1896-1974) are buried in Sedgwick County, Kansas.

rocky 32 steel buildingSome of the first Rockyfeller buildings, measuring ten by twenty feet, were made in Fort Worth.

rocky 37 adThe chain grew slowly in Fort Worth: four Rockyfellers by 1929 and five by 1930. By 1937 there were still five.

rocky 38 cdBy 1938 Fort Worth’s sixth Rockyfeller (no. 22) had opened at 4015 Camp Bowie Boulevard.

rocky 39 opening w 7thThe advantage of portable buildings, of course, was that diners could be relocated: a movable feast. For example, in 1939 Rockyfeller no. 12, which had been at 1000 West 7th Street in the 1938 city directory, relocated to 902 West 7th Street. Note the ad for Bobby Peters and his Continentals at Casino Ballroom.

rocky 41 bowieIn 1941 this ad reminded patrons of the new Bowie Theater that Rockyfeller no. 22 was located just two blocks away. Rockyfellers were often located near movie theaters.

rocky 42 help wantedHelp wanted ads from 1942.

rocky 53 arlington utaOn West Main Street in Arlington in 1953. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

rocky 55 jewish postAd in Fort Worth’s Jewish Post in 1955.

rocky 59 photo dallas about 59 smuDallas in 1959. (Photo from DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.)

rocky 85 budBut with the passage of time, new fast-food chains began to take a bite out of Rockyfeller’s bottom line. In 1985 Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy made a gustatory pilgrimage to the last Rockyfeller stand still standing in Texas—no. 22 at 4015 Camp Bowie Boulevard.

rocky sunny burgerToday the Rockyfeller chain is no more, and few of its buildings remain. But at 3217 North Main Street stands the building (circa 1937) that once housed Rockyfeller no. 11 at 2327 North Main. It was relocated to its current location in 1957. The building now houses Sunny Burger.
And now the rest of the story. And that kiss.

rocky hailey agentToday the Texas secretary of state’s office lists the Rockyfeller Hamburger System’s “registered agent” as Royce Hailey. But according to Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey, Rockyfeller co-founder Robert H. Chesney owned the chain until the early 1970s. Perhaps the Robert Hamlin Chesney (1894-1977) who is buried in Kansas sold the chain to Royce Hailey.

“And who,” you ask, “was Royce Hailey?”

Glad you asked. To answer your question, let’s back up to October 1921. That’s when entrepreneur Jessie G. Kirby and financial backer Dr. Reuben Jackson opened the first Pig Stand drive-in diner along the Dallas-Fort Worth Pike in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Although claims of firsts are often debated, some historians say the Oak Cliff Pig Stand was the world’s first drive-in diner.

Kirby explained his thinking: “People with cars are so lazy, they don’t want to get out of them.”

So Kirby let people with cars be lazy. The chain’s advertising slogans included “As near as your automobile” and “America’s motor lunch.” (People were indeed becoming time conscious in 1921: White Castle, said to be the world’s first fast-food chain, also opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas.)

The Pig Stand chain added (hot) links quickly: For comparison, by the time the second Howard Johnson opened in 1932, there were already more than one hundred Pig Stands—company-owned or franchised—from coast to coast.

rocky pig photoMost of what could be said about Rockyfellers could be said about Pig Stands, although Pig Stands usually were more substantial, site-built buildings.

rocky pig menuPig Stand was the porcine equivalent of the bovine-based Rockyfeller chain. Standing out amid Pig Stand’s menu items such as steaks, fried chicken, pies and fries, sundaes, shakes, a few fish and Mexican dishes, and even salads was its signature (and trademarked) Tennessee-style barbecued-pork sandwich: the “Pig Sandwich.”

That first Pig Stand offered only in-car dining. Indoor dining would come later. But letting diners remain in their cars to eat presented a logistical challenge: how to get diners’ food out to their cars? Kirby and Jackson’s first Pig Stand is also credited with the first carhops and curb service.

In the beginning Pig Stand carhops were boys. Only later did girls take over the job.

rocky 30 hailey censusIn 1930 one such boy carhop was fourteen-year-old Royce Hailey of Oak Cliff. Years later Hailey would recall that in 1930 he pestered the manager of that original Pig Stand diner for a job as a carhop until the manager—perhaps to test the boy’s gumption, perhaps just to embarrass the boy—told Hailey that he could have the job if . . . if Hailey would go across the street and kiss a girl who was sitting in a porch swing.

The intrepid Royce Hailey marched across the street and informed the girl in the swing of his mission. Hailey got his kiss. Hailey got his job. And twenty-five years later Hailey got the presidency of the Pig Stand system. Add another twenty years, and he was sole owner of the system.

That was some kiss!

Some historians credit Pig Stand diners with three more firsts. In 1929 a Pig Stand cook accidentally dropped an onion slice into a bowl of batter and then, on a whim, dipped the battered onion slice into hot cooking oil. Behold the onion ring! And while Hailey was working at the Pig Stand in Beaumont in 1941 he is said to have invented Texas toast when he asked the local bakery to slice his diner’s bread thicker. Problem was, the thicker bread wouldn’t fit into the Pig Stand’s toaster. The cook suggested slathering the bread with butter and toasting it on the grill. Hailey named the creation “Texas toast.” Hailey also is said to have invented the chicken-fried steak sandwich, for which he won first place in a national menu competition.

Pig Stands are also said to have been the first diners to use air-conditioning, neon signs, and fluorescent lighting.

rocky pig 56 cdBy 1956 Fort Worth had four Pig Stands.

rocky 61 pig royceIn 1961 Royce Hailey looked back on forty years of Pig Stand history.

rocky 68 drive-ins cdBy 1968 Fort Worth Pig Stands and Rockyfellers had plenty of competition as just two of several chains of fast-food diners.

rocky 85 sam parent pigThat competition was fierce, a real food fight. Indeed, by 1985, the Star-Telegram wrote, the last Rockyfeller diner in Texas—no. 22 at 4015 Camp Bowie Boulevard—was for sale, its lot being sold out from under it. Note that the feature refers to Royce Hailey’s Pig Stand chain as “the owner” and the “parent” of the Rockyfellers diners. Hailey said, “Rockyfeller stands were low-volume fast food. High-volume fast-food operations like McDonald’s beat us out.”

Rockyfeller’s last stand closed in 1987. But the building lived on: It was moved to Eagle Mountain Lake.

rocky hailey tombstoneRoyce Hailey died in 2000 and is buried in Dallas.

And in 2006, seventy-six years after the intrepid Royce Hailey kissed a girl in a porch swing, the Pig Stand company went bankrupt and closed.

(Thanks to Earl Belcher for suggesting this topic.)

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