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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Standing outside the original Hall’s restaurant on Bluffton Road, are, from left, Sam Hall, Jeff Hall and Bud Hall. The original location, opened by their father, Don Hall, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Don Hall’s Original Drive-In server Bobbie Brown delivers food to Hugh Hosbein, left, and Kevin Payne during their recent visit to the restaurant.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette General Manager Rick Schimmoller changes a bulb during a recent shift at Don Hall’s Original Drive-In. The location was the first Don Hall’s restaurant to open in Fort Wayne in 1946.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Bill Whitestine reads The Journal Gazette during a recent visit to Don Hall’s Original Drive-In, 1502 Bluffton Road.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Cheryl Parker has a laugh with husband, Paul, during their recent visit to Don Hall’s Original Drive-In on Bluffton Road.

Sunday, June 12, 2016 3:53 pm

Hall's legacy endures

Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette

Just as Bud Hall finds a quiet space inside one of the several dining rooms within Hall’s Guesthouse, he notices a spot on the four-top table, then makes a face.

"Geez," he mutters, then disappears.

Thirty seconds later he is back with a damp towel, which he uses to clean the table once more.

To all the chain eateries in town, to all the establishments that opened with high hopes but closed because of low turnout, to the trendy places where portions are small but the bill isn’t, this is the textbook example why Hall’s restaurants – the "Don Hall’s Family of Restaurants" being the official slogan – has flourished for 70 years; that Bud Hall, oldest of founder Don’s four sons and part-owner of the 11 Fort Wayne-area restaurants and one in Indianapolis, not only notices a smudge when no one else does, but then wipes it from the face of the planet.

"I guess we’re not afraid to work," Bud Hall says. "My family is not afraid to work."

The lineage traces back to Bud’s grandfather and Don’s father, Rank Hall, who operated a meat market on Calhoun Street.

Don Hall enrolled at Indiana University, where he was a walk-on on the football team and also wrestled.

It was his sophomore year at IU when his vision for the future changed.

Rank Hall suffered a stroke, then died. Leaving his college days behind him, Don Hall returned to Fort Wayne to run the meat market.

He paid attention to the coming trends, however. He saw supermarkets on the horizon; markets with their own meat sections, produce and eggs. Sensing that a change was necessary to make a living, Don Hall thought he would open a restaurant.

He bought 40 acres of undeveloped land on Bluffton Road, just at the end of Broadway and across the bridge that crosses the St. Marys River. This is where he would build.

"The earliest recollection is my dad took me out to Bluffton Road, when he had dug the hole for the basement," Hall says.

"I would’ve been about 31/2. I remember going out there with him and just looking at this foundation and this dirt."

The year was 1946 when Don Hall’s Drive-In opened at 1502 Bluffton Road. Patrons could remain in their cars and place their order into a speaker, then a "car hop" would bring a tray that could fit onto the partly opened car window, or they could go inside.

"Here’s where it all began …" the restaurant’s website says of Don Hall’s Original Drive-In.

A second location – Lester’s, named in honor of Don Hall’s childhood friend and now business partner – was built next to the original drive-in.

Another drive-in would be built on the north side of town, at Coliseum Boulevard and Lima Road.

The Gas House would soon arrive to be a downtown staple and a gathering place for the theater community.

Eventually, the upstairs banquet room would be taken over by something new: Takaoka of Japan.

One of Bud Hall’s friends had visited a Japanese restaurant in Indianapolis and suggested that perhaps something similar could make a go of it in Fort Wayne. After visiting the restaurant in Indianapolis and seeing for himself, Hall thought his friend could be right; that it could work back home.

"I didn’t have anybody to run it," Hall says. "I didn’t have a Japanese person."

Then he says, "Luck and timing are more important in this business than anything."

He tells the story of a Japanese woman who is about to marry a resident of Fort Wayne, and she is searching for a place to hold her wedding reception. A conversation ensues. Someone asks her what she does. She says she travels the country, opening Benihanas.

"My catering manager called and said, ‘Hey. I got somebody you may want to talk to,’ " Hall says before he bursts out laughing.

"Her name was Tess," Hall says. "She said, ‘I’ll help you set a menu, show you how to run the schedules on the seating and rotation. I’ll bring some chefs in. I know the best ones in the country.’

"She brought dynamite chefs in, because she knew them. And they liked Fort Wayne."

Luck and timing.

The family of restaurants grew in all directions.

The Halls turned the Imperial Palace hotel on West Washington Boulevard into the Guesthouse. They converted a floundering Holly’s Landing off Trier Road into a success at Triangle Park. Restaurants opened southwest and in New Haven, and now Indianapolis.

Just as there is the "family of restaurants," there is also the Hall family, itself.

Bud shares the business with brothers Sam and Jeff, while another brother, Scott, is the company’s attorney. The family extends even further.

"We’re deep into our third generation," Sam Hall says. "Fortunately, everybody seems to get along. They’ve all got their own projects as far as stores or operations go.

"We were lucky. Bud was kind of a designer; a remodeler of a store and then reopened it under our name. I was just kind of a kitchen rat, more into menus."

Sam loves to tell the story of him in the mid-1960s; back to the Original Drive-In, where it all began.

"I got kicked out of Bluffton Road by the hostess who didn’t even know who I was," he says. "You run with a pack of a half-dozen guys and you probably sit around and tie up a table for an hour and not do anything but drink a cherry vanilla cream Coke. She told us all to leave.

"I don’t think it was anything necessarily what we were doing, but it was probably more what we weren’t doing, which was spending money.

"Of course, all your buddies are quick to say, ‘You know who this guy is?’ But I was embarrassed."

And no, he says, he didn’t tell his father.

But a few years later, Sam hired the same woman who "gave us the heave-ho."

Times were simple when it all began, Bud Hall says. The parlance of the time was to "buzz Hall’s."

"Kids would line up on Friday nights all the way across the bridge, down Broadway, and down Rudisill, just to go through. … It was kids, hot rod cars, duck tails, cigarettes in the sleeves, sittin’ low, spinners, skirts on their cars. It was great.

"What fun we had, just driving around."

Bud Hall says his dad loved those times, too.

While Don Hall might have been a visionary, he was also a "people person."

"He was a character, and people enjoyed him," his son Bud says. "He never wore socks; just a pullover shirt. He smoked cigars. And he was friendly, and he knew people in town. But he was a hard, hard worker. Nobody gave him anything."

So here we are, back where it all began, inside a quiet room within the Guesthouse. Bud Hall sees another spot on the table, takes his napkin and wipes it clean. 

stwarden@jg.net