Serving It Up, No Chains Attached /
Paradise For The Poodle-Skirt
St. Petersburg Times, June 12, 1995, Series: Old Restaurants
St. Petersburg, Fl
By Mark Albright, Staff Reporter


Biff Burger - Tampa Bay and the nation are being swept over by a relentless tide of fast-food chains, the fastest-growing piece of America's $191-billion restaurant industry.

The trend has made the small quick-serve operator a vanishing breed.

But even though they're unable to compete with the chains' marketing budgets, high-tech systems and brand-name drawing power, several Tampa Bay entrepreneurs armed with only a single location and a limited menu have carved out successful niches.

In fact, each has become a destination of its own.

Talk with these fiercely independent operators, and three keys to their prosperity emerge: Never sacrifice the quality of the food. Reward your best and most loyal employees in hopes of keeping them for years. Offer an experience the chains don't.

Here are the stories of four local restaurateurs who are going against the grain. Yes, there is life after death for one old fast-food hamburger stand.

George Musser has reincarnated the last remnant of the Biff-Burger chain into a stuck-in-the-'50s spot that packs in up to 2,000 customers on a big Friday night.

"Some people stay an hour; most stay for several because it's fun for the family," said Musser, a onetime refrigeration contractor who parlayed a $100,000 investment into a drive-through that generates $1.5-million in revenue a year.

Even by 1950s standards, Biff-Burger is much more than some A&W Root Beer stand. For starters, it covers half a city block.

On Fridays, about 100 classic-car buffs surround the place with their gleaming, chrome-clad hot rods, some of which cost $50,000 to build. Disc jockeys spin '50s hits and supervise audience participation games for adults and kids. And because the close-in parking spaces are held for cars at least 20 years old, many patrons park blocks away from the Biff-Burger, which is at 3939 49th St. N.

Over 13 years, Musser has broadened the burger-and-fries staples to other fast food, including barbecue, "Biffalo" wings and a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.

"But our mainstay is still the Biff-Burger," Musser said.

Biff-Burger, which has been at its present location since 1962, was sort of a forerunner of Checkers before hitting bottom in 1977. The Clearwater-based company had sold restaurants to dozens of franchisees. The restaurants were portable metal facilities that featured walk-up or drive-in service; seating was outdoors.

While the franchisees struggled and eventually disappeared, one entrepreneur kept alive the last location and got the rights to the name, building sales up to $500,000 a year in the process.

Then Musser took over in 1982, spending $500,000 on parking lots, a covered patio and Buffy's (Get it? Biff's sister), an adjoining barbecue stand boasting a 1957 Chevrolet on the roof.

Not everybody loves the scene. Protesting neighbors persuaded the City Council to turn down Biff-Burger's request to serve mixed drinks. Biff-Burger already gets 8 percent of sales from beer and wine, which ironically has meant nobody under 18 can get into this replica of a teenage hangout without their parents in tow. Off-duty police hired for security get help from a rooftop sentry scanning the lot with binoculars.

Musser, the only child of a broken home, came by his inventiveness and work ethic early.

He got his first job at 8 and was shining shoes at 10. In junior high, he sold his own homemade version of Muzak to supermarkets. At 25, he was a city council member in Fort Collins, Colo., and owned a refrigeration business with 35 trucks combing the Denver area. Then he moved to Florida in search of a new challenge.

One of his first additions to Biff-Burger was roller-skating car hops. They were sidelined to keep the insurance company at bay after custom-car owners discovered the place and the crowds got too big.

Now 15 custom-car clubs stage meetings and competitions at Biff-Burger, and buffs from all over Florida cruise the lot on Wednesdays and Fridays. Saturday is country music night.

"I never thought it would evolve into this," said Musser, 50, who once won a car in a jitterbug contest.

Musser has even found an audience among foreign tourists in search of authentic Americana. "We had a fellow marketing Biff-Burger T-shirts back in Germany," Musser said. "He sold hundreds."

Copyright Times Publishing Co. June 12, 1995

 
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