THE STORY OF ROAKE’S
It all began with a dream. In 1937, Roy Dowell wanted to build a number of little trailers and put them throughout Oregon and Washington, but his dream of a chain of little diners had one problem. Roy had no money! However, Roy was able to work out a “deal” with Carlton Lumber Company in which Carlton would furnish Dowell the materials and Dowell would build the trailers. As they were sold, Dowell would pay back Carlton for the cost of the materials. Carlton Lumber was located in NE Portland where the Memorial Coliseum sits today. Roy actually built the trailers in the back of that lumber yard.
Eventually, 13 trailers were built and moved to locations such as Barlow, Hubbard, Dee Lake and Tenino, Washington. The price for a fully furnished unit was somewhere between $1500-$2000, which included not only the dog cooker and toaster, but a galvanized sink that quickly rusted out and was the source of many complaints from the buyers of these unique trailers
Charles Dowd was the original purchaser of the McLouglin Blvd trailer. The exact date of his purchase is unknown, but was sometime between 1937 to 1939. Transporting the trailer from NE Portland down Super 99 (McLoughlin Blvd.) required a permit from the State Highway Division. The State Highway Division dragged its feet in issuing the permit, so Dowell took a friend’s advice and moved the trailer down the highway at night. The trailer was functioning and included an axle and wheels.
Once in place, the restaurant was named Jiffy Way Lunch. At that time, it was the first restaurant to be located on that stretch of the “New” Super 99 Highway between Portland and Oregon City.
Though customers claim to have been eating at the restaurant since 1932, Charles Dowd actually opened for business in 1938. He operated the business for only a few short months before he sold the small drive-in to Ed Berdine and his wife, Hazel.
Ed Berdine was 5’5” tall and a workaholic that loved his customers as much as they loved him. As long as there were customers, the place would be open! Ed, his wife and their two daughters, Lorraine and Audrey, lived in the small trailer that sat next to the drive-in.
When World War II broke out, food supplies became erratic and scarce. Running a restaurant at that time proved to be difficult. So in 1942, Ed shut down the restaurant, moved to California and went to work for Douglas Aircraft. However, him and his family returned to Oregon in 1943 to reopen the drive-in.
Several years after his return to Oregon, Ed sold Jiffy Way Lunch to John Whitney and it became known as Long John’s . The long hot dogs soon were simply called “Long John’s”. It quickly became known as a hang-out for Milwaukie, Oregon City and West Linn high school students. With the streetcars now running past the back door and cars traveling past its front door on the “New” Super Highway, the little hot dog stand prospered!
In 1954, for whatever reason, John Whitney decided to sell the business. Ed Berdine, along with his son-in-law Dale Ficken, wanted to buy the business back. Legally it became “Dale and Ed’s” but most people just continued to call it “Long John’s”. Although, until 1976 it still remained listed in the phone book as Jiffy Way Lunch.
At this time, a tradition of sorts was re-established at the restaurant, it seems that in Ed’s first tenure as owner/operator of the eatery, on weekdays he would chop onions in the kitchen of the restaurant, but during the weekend, to get away from all the customers, Ed moved his chopping to the backroom. Friends would be invited back for the privilege of chopping onions with Ed and the added bonus of sipping on some “Old Stag” whiskey. Soon, the terminology used by friends when referring to the whiskey was “Onion Juice”, and a bottle of “Onion Juice” was always stashed in the nearby refrigerator. Ed claimed that this time honored tradition helped to, “ease the pain of cutting onions”. He much preferred cooking hamburgers and left the hot dogs to everybody else. Ed liked to sell out on Monday and be closed on Tuesday.
Originally, the 8x20ft trailer sported an awning on the south side with an area designed to accommodate a “marble machine”. There were several tables and folding chairs along with a maligned jukebox- the source of much irritation to nearby neighbors as it was up to the patrons to regulate the volume control. At some point during Whitney’s ownership, the porch was enclosed to accommodate the “famous” pinball machines. There have been many stories told about them over the years. True, the machines did pay off, or more correctly, the owners paid off on the machines, After all, it was the owners—not the machines that were fined for the illegal payouts.
The fines were considered merely an inconvenience and a cost of doing business in the county, and business was good! It has been reported, and accurately so, that two owners, in separate incidents, were arrested and did spend a night or two in a local legal establishment. With the last arrest, it became apparent that the sheriff meant business and paying off on the machines ceased.
In 1971, at age 71, Ed passed away. Dale Ficken and his wife, Lorraine, their two sons, Rob and David, and their daughter Suzanne were left to run the little hot dog stand. With the passing of the torch, there would be changes. Ed would stay open until 12:30 am on weekdays, 1:30 am on Friday and 2:30 am on Saturday.
Since the very beginning, carhops were used to take the orders and then deliver them to the cars that filled the parking lot. The cooked food was placed on the carhop trays that were carefully sitting on the little window counter. The customers would watch as bottles of cold pop were pulled from the Coca-Cola cooler sitting outside on the porch and placed on the carhop trays. Kids could tell from the bottles placed on the tray if it was coming to their car or not. It was all part of the ambiance.
It was not unusual to have a lengthy wait just for the carhop take your order, let alone get your food. The current owner, Jim Roake, can remember one beautiful Sunday afternoon in 1967, sitting with his girlfriend in his 1961 Impala convertible, waiting and waiting for the carhop to take his order. Finally she arrived, only to tell him, “before you order, we are out of hot dogs”! Now, when people go to a hot dog stand, it’s usually to get a hot dog. Jim could not believe they were out of hot dogs in the middle of the afternoon and that they had waited so long to tell him. Only after he had purchased the restaurant did he fully understand what had happened. Dale would order so much for the weekend, and if he sold all the dogs, he felt it was a good weekend, and that he had earned some time off… so he simply closed up!
Dale eventually started to close on Mondays as well as Tuesdays. With the passing of his wife, Lorraine, in 1973, Dale found less reasons to work and started to close the restaurant whenever he felt like it. Many of his customers at this time would take a long drive to their favorite hot dog stand only to be greeted with a “closed” signed in the window and a “Gone Fishing” or “Gone Hunting” sign taped to the door.
It wasn’t until Sunday, Sept. 7, 1975 that a “for sale by owner” sign appeared in the window of the little hot dog stand. Dale had not planned to sell his restaurant for another two or three years, but on this particular Sunday, a strong-willed Dale Ficken was working with his equally strong-willed daughter, Suzanne Moon, when they came to an impasse of sorts. Dale apparently fired Suzanne just a Suzanne quit and was walking out the door. At that exact moment, Dale decided he’d had his fill of the hot dog business. So off to the store he went, to buy the “For Sale” sign he placed in the window just before taking off for the Coast.
A then very young Jim Roake just happened to be driving by the hot dog stand on that very Sunday and spotted the sign. Jim had been coming to the hot dog stand ever since he could remember. In fact, he realized that every time his parents ever argued, his mom would load the kids up in the car and off they would go to get hot dogs! Needless to say, he ate there quite a lot. Jim had long dreamed of owning the famous little hot dog stand. He had even written a term paper on the place while he was in college.
Jim called the number on the sign. There was no answer. He called it again, and again, and still no answer. Panic started to set in. He knew that there would be many people who wanted to buy the place and that he had to act fast or he would lose the opportunity. A reverse directory got him Ficken’s address. When he arrived, Dale’s daughter, Suzanne answered the door. He told him that Dale had gone to the Coast and would not be home until Tuesday night. Jim left discouraged. He drove several blocks before he turned back to the house. Jim decided that if there was ever a time in his life that he needed to act, it was then.
Suzanne reopened the door to find the now persistent Jim Roake asking where at the coast he could find her dad. Suzanne said that he was working at his beach house. She did not know the address but she knew the name of the development and that it was a “tan colored” house.
Soon, Jim Roake, his future partner Bill Shreve and his wife were headed to the coast in search of Dale Ficken. They found the development with no problem, but just about every house in it was “ tan”. Eventually they spotted Dale’s house, but the neighbor thought Dale had just left for dinner so they left. As a longtime customer at the stand, Jim recognized Dale’s pick-up partially hidden in the back of a Waldport café’s parking lot. Sure enough, there sat Dale, eating alone at the counter.
Given the situation and the haste in which Dale had put up the “for sale” sign, it was understandable that he really had not thought things through regarding the sale of his business. Things like price and terms had been overlooked. That night, a purchase agreement was loosely structured and signed by all parties back at Dale’s beach home. It was a contract, but in reality one easily broke and in recognizing this, Jim Roake added one last little detail to the vague contract. There is no doubt in his mind that over the next few months of working out the details, Dale would have walked away from the sale were it not for that little clause that had been placed in the earnest money agreement. That little detail is commonly called “a right of first refusal”. Years later, Dale’s son David was asked why he had not purchased the business from his dad and he replied that he wanted to and would have except he was “beaten to it”.
Jim and Bill took over in February 1976. No new name was placed on the building and things continued as they were. The capacity was seven dogs at a time and no dogs were started until ordered. Each order was written on a steno pad along with a description of the customer’s car. When the order was ready, the car was signaled. The customer then paid for the food when it was picked up. On Saturdays there often was 45 minute waits for an order.
Though the partnership between Jim and Bill didn’t last long, it did prove one thing: Partnerships don’t work! Bill was bought out after the first year. At that point it was time to think of a new name for the little stand. It was being called so many different names: Long John’s, Dale’s, Jiffy Way Lunch or the Hot Dog Stand. And many names were considered. Jim’s wife Ruth thought he should use his last name but Jim thought many would not know how to pronounce it and considered having the sign read, “Roke’s”, but Ruth insisted the right spelling be used and so the little hot dog stand became “Roake’s”.
Soon after, there came some changes to speed things along. The kitchen was rearranged so that 14 hot dogs could be cooked at one time. It was also at that time that fries were introduced to the menu. As time has passed there have been other minor changes made. For example, loud speakers are now used instead of the “pointing system” to alert customers when their order is ready.
Roake’s has become an institution that is recognized for having the best hot dogs in Portland. Today’s customers are second, third and fourth generation from those very first customers from the late 1930’s. It is amazing the number of families that have made Roake’s a family tradition.