Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article in this series will feature the story of Ford’s Real Hamburgers founder and artist Jim Ford. An exhibit of Ford’s artwork will be presented at the Scottish Rite Temple at 6151 H St. on Nov. 23-25.
For many people in the Land Park area and throughout the region for that matter, it can be hard to believe that another landmark Sacramento business – Ford’s Real Hamburgers – has folded.
It has been only a week since the doors of this restaurant closed to the public during what could have been a joyous time in the history of the business. This popular eatery at 1948 Sutterville Road, next to William Land Park, was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
The story of Ford’s Real Hamburgers, which opened on Oct. 23, 1987 at the former site of Mr. Taco Drive-In restaurant, began with Jim Ford and his business partner, then-girlfriend and now wife, Karen DeVoe.
Ford, who was born in Sacramento and grew up in the Land Park area, referred to himself as a person who has always been business minded and enjoys becoming involved in projects.
Although Ford’s Real Hamburgers was one of his more successful projects, Ford said that the restaurant began with limited funds and little notoriety.
“In 1987, when we opened, we had very little money, so we had a ‘Grand Chair Opening,’ and invited 200 people to bring a variety of different chairs to use on the outdoor patio,” Ford said.
Despite working with a small budget, Ford and DeVoe held fast to their commitment to use high quality food products at the restaurant.
Ford’s most important goal was to select the best hamburger meat he could locate in the city.
He added that this search ended at Taylor’s Market in Land Park.
“I did my research and looked for someone to fresh grind chuck, so that it had a fat content of 16 to 20 percent,” Ford said. “Ed Schell of Taylor’s Market fit the bill. Ed ground our meat from the beginning and we could always tell when Ed did not grind the meat, because the fat to meat ratio was not correct.”
Schell, who continues to work at Taylor’s on Saturdays, described the quality of meat that was used at Ford’s.
“(Ford) got the best meat that there was available in this world,” Schell said. “It was not already ground once like a lot of stores do now. His stuff came from whole beef that was cut and then ground for him daily. It was from the best cuts of meat from the shoulder of the beef. I would grind 80 to 120 pounds of (hamburger meat) for Ford’s a day, and it would take maybe a couple of hours to (grind) it all.”
And after the meat was delivered to Ford’s, it was gently formed into patties by hand.
Schell said that Ford’s continued to use ground chuck from Taylor’s until only a few months ago.
“(Ford’s) stopped using (Taylor’s ground chuck), because of the price,” Schell said. “Actually, I can’t blame (Ford’s), if they were losing money and the business was struggling.”
Ford said that Taylor’s most unique burger was its “Football” burger.
“The ‘Football’ burger was put on the menu to be unique and give people something to talk about,” Ford said. “It was easy to make. We would combine two half-pound burgers. We were always amazed and amused when people ordered and ate one. It was usually the young males under 25 who would finish eating the ‘Football.’ It weighed one-pound and was served on a small loaf of bread.”
Originally, the ‘Football’ cost $6.99 without cheese and bacon, $8.69 with cheese or $11.99 with cheese and bacon.
The “Football” remained on the menu until the restaurant’s closure. It last had a price of $14.72 for the regular ‘Football,’ $16.57 with cheese or $20.41 with cheese and bacon.
From the opening of Ford’s until four years ago, this restaurant used large buns that were made by the Muzio Baking Co. in East Sacramento.
As for the burger sauce, Ford’s used homemade Thousand Island dressing that consisted of Best Foods mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, honey and pepper.
And when it came to this eatery’s french fries, Ford said that Ford’s was possibly a Sacramento original.
“We used fresh potatoes for our french fries,” Ford said. “The only other competitor that used fresh-cut fries that I am aware of was In-N-Out Burger and they were all the way in Los Angeles.”
Ford’s milkshakes were originally made with Crystal ice cream. This ice cream was selected due to its high butterfat content.
A bit of trivia that few people know about Ford’s Real Hamburgers was that it nearly opened as Jay’s Real Hamburgers. The name was selected as a tribute to Ford’s late brother, Jay.
But with the then-recent opening of Chevy’s Fresh Mex restaurant on the Garden Highway, Ford figured it would be clever to name his restaurant Ford’s.
Although this Land Park restaurant had his name on it, Ford said that had it not been for DeVoe, Ford’s would have never had the opportunity to become nearly 25 years old.
“If it were not for (DeVoe’s) daily diligence and operating the heart of the business – hiring the employees, keeping the scheduling, monitoring food costs and payroll – as well as stepping in as a cook, I would have closed the doors (of the restaurant),” Ford said. “She has been my best friend for the past 29 years.”
Ford also recognized Michael “Poodle” Welch for his assistance during the beginning stages of the restaurant.
“(Welch) was instrumental in the first few months of operations by showing us the magic of prepping and cooking,” Ford said. “As long as we had cold beer in the refrigerator, he came in every morning to help through the lunch rush and then he would leave to work for his regular chef position (at Peter B’s Freeport Inn).”
Also working with the restaurant very early in its history was Land Park resident and Ford’s good friend, Jim McGinnis, who aided the business with financial, moral and labor assistance.
The restaurant experienced an increase in its notoriety in December 1987 after Sacramento Bee writer Bob Sylva dedicated an entire column to Ford and his restaurant.
In the column, Ford was quoted as saying, “I have something that America truly wants. America is fed up with fast food, rubber burgers. People are sick of the taste, the Styrofoam, the greasiness, the pale color, the generic factor. We are totally opposite of that. The best burger is the simplest burger. And it doesn’t have to taste like it was shipped frozen from Chicago.”
Sylva comically referred to Ford’s words as “a sort of ground chuck manifesto.”
Seven months after Sylva’s column was published, Jim Van Nort of Jim-Denny’s hamburger eatery at 816 12th St., retired.
Van Nort’s retirement and what proved to be a temporary closure of his restaurant was the inspiration behind Bee restaurant reviewer Mike Dunne’s lengthy article, “The Great Sacramento Hamburger Hunt.”
Dunne concluded in the article that Ford’s served the city’s best hamburgers.
Many Bee readers wrote letters to the editor voicing their opinions that Ford’s did not make Sacramento’s best hamburgers.
In response to these letters and some telephone calls to the publication, The Bee held another best hamburgers contest less than two months later. Once again, Ford’s was determined to serve the city’s best burgers.
As a result of these contests, Ford’s popularity grew and the restaurant doubled its number of employees to keep up with the increase in its daily customers.
In August 1991, Ford’s was sold to Pete Vereschzagin, who operated the business until last January, when his son, Hank, took over its operations.
The popularity of Ford’s remained strong for many years, but eventually fewer customers dined at this eatery each day.
Nonetheless, Ford’s remained a notable destination spot and a local institution.
Ford’s folded after experiencing financial difficulties and being faced with an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit.
In commenting about the closure of Ford’s, Pete said, “We see it as a family loss. We had it as a family establishment for 21 years. I appreciated my customers and it was a total joy working there with my sons (Hank and Sam) and it’s sad to see it go.”