Lisa Hillhouse Tressler of the Sixes community had an enviable job in high school: she worked at the Burger Chief from 1981 through 1984, when she graduated.
The restaurant, opened in the 1960s by Dr. Edwin Swords and Dr. William Nichols, was one of the few fast food restaurants in the area at the time. The original building burned in the late 1970s, and Tressler worked in the new building that took its place. The restaurant eventually closed in the late 1980s.
In this edited version of a conversation, Tressler remembers the uniforms, the arcade games, the popular menu items and how Burger Chief, in a way, is a symbol of Canton days gone by.
How did you get the job at Burger Chief?
Actually, my sister was part of the first crew when they rebuilt the building. She was part of the training before they even re-opened. Our family knew the doctors and she got a job there, then my middle sister got a job there, and then I did. My oldest sister was a good worker and that opened the doors for us!
There’s about three-and-a-half years between my oldest sister and me. So we worked there a little bit simultaneously. I turned 15 a few months before my oldest sister went off to college so we all worked together one summer. After that, I worked with my middle sister some.
We loved the “broasted potatoes” at Burger Chief. They were like potato wedges but we had a deep fryer pressure cooker so that’s what made them “broasted.” So we loved those. But it was really bad if you happened to have one in your mouth and someone happened to say something funny and you started laughing. It was easy to get choked. So we did that to each other all the time, deliberately.
Who did you work with and what was life like “behind the scenes” at Burger Chief?
I worked part-time after school and on the weekends. The day shift during the week worked full-time: some were new graduates; some were women who had worked at the original Burger Chief and then they came back when it was rebuilt.
It was a great place to work. Bob Moore was the manager; Ortha McFarland Young was the assistant manager — she was a sweetheart. They were a lot of fun to work with. And we tended to get our friends to apply there and work with us. …
I usually worked either the front counter or the drive-thru. I started out on the front counter — that’s usually where they started you — and once you got fast, you could go to the drive-thru. … I was certainly nervous the first week or two but after you get the routine down and catch on, I was fine.
As far as customers, everyone was nice. A couple of people would get upset if their order wasn’t ready or it was made incorrectly, but it’s not like they were raging — they were polite about it. I think things have changed since then. …
The inside would be the busiest on Sundays when church let out. There were always big church crowds that would pack the place. Families, the pastors — we gave the pastors 10% off dinner and free coffee, I think.
Friday and Saturday nights were busy, it was crazy after games. Or when birthday parties were happening.
Overall, it was fun. It’s a stereotype: We were kids and a little naive. It was just fun hanging out and getting paid a little bit for it and seeing people you knew come in.
What were the Burger Chief uniforms of the early 1980s like?
We had to wear blue jeans, with a white polo or oxford shirt, red suspenders and black plastic bowler hats with a red band around them.
Was Burger Chief still the hangout and “cruising” spot?
It was more on the weekends, but during the week, cruising would happen, too, when school events let out. It was the era of big trucks and big tires so you’d have to reach out three feet above the drive-thru window to hand the food up to them!
It’s my understanding that the original Burger Chief was very much the hangout place. We’d always heard that was why the doctors had built it so the kids would have a place to hang out — there wasn’t a place to get a hamburger around at the time. It very much was that type of a site.
When I worked there, there were definitely people who would hang out and play the video games — Donkey Kong, the race car game. Some people would come in and play those constantly every day after school!
And then we’d have the cruisers come in with their big trucks — cruising the neighborhood and then they’d go riding in the mud somewhere because they always seemed to have mud on their trucks.
But when the new Burger Chief opened, there were only two or three years before McDonald’s was built across the street. And McDonald’s became the place to hang out when it opened. So while people hung out at the Burger Chief I worked in, I don’t think it was perhaps as much the hangout spot as it had been originally.
What about the competition? The 1980s saw many fast food chains come to Canton.
Pizza Hut was the first one, Mrs. Winner’s was between us and the Pizza Hut, and then McDonald’s. Pizza Hut was a popular hangout, too. Burger Chief wasn’t the only game in town by the time I graduated.
What were some of the Burger Chief menu items from the early 1980s?
The single hamburger, which was a quarter-pound patty, was probably the most popular. You could add chili, coleslaw, cheese. We had some customers who would order the exact same thing 1-2 times a week, every single week I worked there.
The chicken sandwich was popular. The vegetable bar — it was like a buffet — was a place for people to get something other than typical fast food. And, of course, the biscuits in the morning.
And the ice cream cones! The doctors gave kids coupons for free ice cream. We had chocolate, vanilla and the “twist” with both.
How does the fast food of today compare with your Burger Chief days?
Burger Chief used fresh ground beef, and the patties were freshly made. The chicken and potatoes were really good. Some of the women who had worked at the original Burger Chief made cobbler — there were several things they cooked. And when we had the vegetable cart, and they cooked a lot of it.
I think I ate everything there. It was fast food but it was still fresh and handmade. It did make a difference. Especially compared to places today that use frozen patties they just reheat.
I probably went 15 or 20 years without eating fast food. And then I had my kids and now I have to eat it occasionally. But it does influence you.
How do you think Burger Chief illustrates 1980s Canton life?
In the early 1980s, there were still a lot of old Cherokee County left, where everybody knew everybody. It was still a pretty tight-knit community. I-575 was just starting to come through. So when Burger Chief was rebuilt, it was still holding on to what had been there before. So it did change when I-575 came through, when Wendy’s, McDonalds, other fast food places opened up. It was that transition time. Most of us who worked there knew each other, our families knew each other, we knew the doctors.
And as Burger Chief closed, part of those things that made Canton Canton or Cherokee County Cherokee County kind of got lost. This was about the same time that Jones’ closed down. A lot of family-owned businesses that had always been here went away. Burger Chief was very much a place of its time.