St. Petersburg Times, August 02, 2002|
St. Petersburg, FL
By Lane DeGregory
But slow down and soak up 40 years of nostalgia, drenched in french fries and polished in the hot rod chrome parked out front at Biff-Burger in St. Petersburg.
ST. PETERSBURG -- They start rolling into the parking lot about 5 p.m. Shiny '69 Camaros belching black smoke; '66 Chevy Bel Airs rumbling above gleaming bumpers. They pull into the same spots every week, like faithful churchgoers staking out their favorite pews.
By 7 p.m., vintage hot rods fill the lot. Hundreds of spectators are surrounding the hamburger stand. On 49th Street N, long lines of vehicles are blocking traffic in both directions, waiting to turn into Biff-Burger.
Every Friday since 1989, the scene has been the same.
"I try to get here early. I've been coming every week for four years, at least," says Dave Rosell. He's a semiretired eye doctor who lives in Treasure Island. Before sunset each Friday, he parks his black '71 Monte Carlo SS and rubs down the 454 Twin Turbo. He sets his lawn chair in the shade of a palm tree and props up his feet. He orders a quarter-pound Biff-Burger with cheese and starts fielding questions.
This original Biff-Burger sign has beckoned customers since the mid 1960's.
Did you do the work yourself?
How long did it take you?
Ever take that baby to the track?
"I guess I like to be able to show off the car and talk to the folks who are interested," Rosell says on a sweltering Friday in late July. "I never enter my car to be judged. I just have a good time meeting all the people."
Once, Biff-Burger's famous flaming neon signs blinked across the Southeast. Biff stood for "Best in Fast Food." The charbroiled burgers were lathered in a special sauce.
During the heyday of hamburger stands, (long before McDonald's consumed the countryside), 168 Biff-Burgers featured drive-up service and walk-up counters; no dining room. Patrons ate in their cars or sweated it out on round tables beside the parking lot.
Cindy Estell and her husband, Wendell Estell, center, enjoy the camaraderie at Biff's. Bob Tregoning, left, owns the 1954 Ford Mercury on the right.
The 49th Street Biff-Burger opened in 1960. Thick shakes at "the milk bar" cost 15 cents. The walk-up window has been open for 42 years.
It's nearly a national landmark -- the sole survivor of an almost-forgotten era.
In 1954, Burger King started with a small hamburger stand in Miami. By the time the 49th Street Biff-Burger opened, Burger King was operating 45 restaurants throughout the Southeast. Burger King started buying Biff-Burgers in the early '60s.
The St. Petersburg owner held out -- until George Musser came along.
Musser grew up in Colorado, knowing nothing of Biff-Burger. When he moved to St. Petersburg in 1980, he was looking to buy a neighborhood beach bar. Or at least a lounge.
None were for sale.
So he settled for an old hamburger joint on 49th Street near 38th Avenue N. He paid $100,000 for the property and promised to keep the name and the flaming neon sign. He thought briefly of tearing the building down and building a bar. But he didn't have the money, so he started fixing up his piece of history.
He and his son Troy, then 18, scoured the orange booths and shined the Formica tables. They scrubbed the brown and gold vinyl floor and the tall beige trash cans. George's wife, Sandy, washed the checked curtains. They added an outdoor bar, got a license to serve beer, expanded the parking lot.
"Technically, we would have loved to start over, build a real state-of-the-art place," says Troy, who is now 38 and the main manager at Biff-Burger. "We've outgrown our kitchen. We need more seating. But we keep making it work.
Diane Konstantinovic of Indian rocks Beach gives
daughter Alicia, 7, a whirl on the dance floor.
"And so now it's real. People think it's part of our charm. You can't really replace real, you know."
In 1989, Musser bought a barbecue joint next door and mounted a '57 Chevy on top. Classic cars started streaming in that summer. Friday nights have been Biff-Burger's busiest since.
Every week, at least 25 car clubs meet here, hundreds of people munching beef and drinking Bud drafts. They drive in from Georgia and Miami, Texas and Mississippi. Once, a car club came all the way from Germany, shipping their precious cargo by boat.
"They wanted to be a part of real America," Troy Musser says. "All the cars they brought were American-made. All they wanted to eat were burgers and fries."
On the first Friday of every month, Musser awards trophies for the best Mopar and Ford Lincoln Mercury and GM. Plus a category for "Cruiser of the Week." He gives out $100 and car wax as door prizes. He hires a DJ to stage a limbo contest, provides free beer for prizes. He holds twist and Hula Hoop marathons for the kids.
He and his wife and son work more than 80-hour weeks, greeting the regulars, admiring their rides. They sweat in the outdoor bar and inhale car exhaust.
Their investment brings in more than $2-million a year.
They say they wouldn't trade it for all the horsepower in the parking lot. (Well, now that you mention it, some of those '64 Super Sports sure are looking sweet . . .)
The Beach Boys and the Bride
The original outdoor bar stretches from a place called Pervert's Corner to the front parking lot. Sandy works here most evenings. She knows who sits where, what all the regulars drink.
She pours their beer before they pull up their stool.
"Most of these guys have been coming here since before we bought the place. I don't think UPS Paul has missed a day in decades," she says, wiping down the varnished counter. "The people in here just keep coming back.
Linda Carey and Allan Hudson Brady take a break outside Buffy's Bar-B-Que, which is adjacent to Biff-Burger. Carey is a prep cook and Brady is a DJ and announcer.
"I've seen little kids grow up from Hula-Hooping to being old enough to sit here at the bar."
Twenty-one televisions hang around the outdoor patio, flashing screens with everything from the Weather Channel to ESPN to Cartoon Network. Sweaty waitresses slide between wooden booths, carrying trays filled with shrimp baskets and tater tots. Little Deuce Coupe is blaring through speakers mounted to the makeshift stage. The air smells like fried chicken and french fries.
"Not much has changed around here," UPS Paul says from his preferred pew. He's been sitting in the same spot for 45 years. He's on a late lunch break, drinking black coffee.
When he was in junior high, in 1959, Paul Sorg and his younger brother Steve would ride their bikes from their grandparents' Gulfport home all the way to Biff-Burger. They'd order two root beers and two burgers. They'd sit outside at the round tables feeling sneaky, fueling up for the rest of their ride.
"My dad had a super modified '35 Chevy with a 318 Plymouth fuel-injected motor, and he used to race it up at Sunshine Speedway some," says UPS Paul. "So we'd stop here and eat on the way, then pedal on up to the track. 49th Street was just a two-lane road back then.
"Nope, things are pretty much the same here as they always were," he says. "Even a lot of the faces."
Almost everyone at Biff-Burger knows someone else here. They might not know their name. But they know their ride.
It's the kind of place where people appreciate all the body work you put into that '54 Mercury; where they want to know how you shaved the door handles off that Duster -- not why; where someone will look at your photo album of that '71 Demon without an engine and oooh and aaah over its potential. Where you can find out where to get vintage Dodge dials for your dashboard. Or you can learn how to put in chrome oil pans and modify big-block engines. And everyone wants to look under your hood.
"I used to come here just to check out other folks' cars. Then, about 14 years ago, I got my own. So now I'm here every week," says James Spears, 59. He did all the work on his '51 Ford's 302 engine. He had a custom license plate made for the fat front bumper: "Praise the Lowered." "Everyone remarks on that," he says. "Folks here all get it, you know?"
It's a tight squeeze for Matt Littlewood, who somehow made it through another round of limbo. Biff-Burger has games for kids and adults.
The caring goes beyond the cars. If someone doesn't show up one week, another regular always calls or stops by their house to check on them. "It's like Cheers," says UPS Paul. "Only with cool cars."
On the long wall by the women's room, the Mussers created a memorial called "Highway to Heaven." Faded photographs of Lone Wolf, Ray Gallagher, Bob and Karen Lollis and other deceased regulars are flanked by handpainted letters: "Gone But Not Forgotten." Their friends stop by each Friday to remember and pay their respects.
"This is just a real family-oriented, down-to-earth place. It's not fancy. But it's perfect," Tina Burns says between bites of cole slaw. "It's the sort of spot where you keep getting up to swap tables because so many of your friends are always dropping by."
The kind of place you can take your kids and show them what life was like before air-conditioned Wendy's.
Tina and her husband, John, have been making weekly runs to Biff-Burger for years. In 2000, they got married at the hamburger joint. The staff catered a barbecue reception for 150 guests while classic cars honked their horns in the parking lot. At the end of the evening, Tina and John cruised off in his yellow 1973 Plymouth Duster.
"I'm really a Chevy girl," she says. "But he's been trying to convert me to Mopar.
On Friday night the parking lot at Biff-Burger looks like a car lot as customers gather to check out the hot rods and swap fix-up stories.
A Moveable Feast
By 9 p.m., the parking lot looks like a carnival midway.
Hoods are propped open, and engines are gleaming in the floodlights. Chuck Berry is blasting through the speakers, and soft-serve ice cream is melting down sugar cones. Women are selling roses wrapped in cellophane, hot-rod shaped soaps, stuffed bears in big baskets. Two teenage boys are lying on their bellies on the asphalt, trying to inspect each other's chassis.
On one edge of the crowd, a dad is trying to explain to his young daughter why Corvettes trump Mustangs. She's 6. You have to start sometime.
"I've been coming here 20 years at least. Had a '73 'Cuda back in high school. It wasn't as nice as this 'Vette. But it was what I could afford," says Pat McFarland, 34. He lives in St. Petersburg and works at a water treatment plant. He and his buddy, David Williams, restored this '69 Corvette and '68 Cutlass.
Every Friday, the two dads bring their cars and kids to Biff-Burger for a quick dinner and a long, educational evening.
"You're outside, drinking beer, hanging with the kids, seeing other cars, getting all kinds of new ideas," McFarland says, lifting his daughter into his Corvette.
Stacy Watson takes her final order of the night as Paul McCormick, rear, prepares more fries and onion rings.
You get all the good parts about being grown up. But it feels just like old times.
The Biff Bio
WHAT: '50s-style hamburger joint also serving breakfast, barbecue and beer.
WHEN: Open 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
WHERE: 3939 49th St. N, St. Petersburg
PHONE: (727) 527-5297
SPECIAL NIGHTS: Theme evenings begin about 7 p.m., including: Fridays -- classic cars; Saturdays and Wednesdays -- motorcycles.
You don't have to own a cruiser to come. Admission is free.
Copyright Times Publishing Co. August. 2, 2002