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Damburger—75 years of Grilling it Up

01/05/2014 01:26PM ● Published by Jon Lewis

By Jon Lewis
Photo by Brett Faulknor

Burgers always come off the Damburger grill well done, which, coincidentally, also happens to be the way fans describe the meals that have been served up for years at the little restaurant in downtown Redding.

Mashed flat and cooked until the edges are nice and crisp, Damburger burgers have been hitting the spot for 75 years. It’s been that way since work started on namesake Shasta Dam and it’s not expected to change anytime soon.

The Damburger is more of a cherished institution than it is a restaurant; a touchstone to a bygone, simpler time. You won’t find any injection-molded plastic seats, garish tie-ins to blockbuster movies or catchy corporate platitudes that were cycled through Madison Avenue focus groups.

What you will find are ready smiles, well-worn counters and stools and consistently tasty burgers. Consistent is the key word. “The Damburger has never changed,” says Julie Malik, who has been running the stand since 2005 when her parents, Ron and Kathy Dickey, retired and moved to Ashland, Ore. 

Bud Pennington never saw the need to change when he set up shop in 1938 in a tent next to the hiring hall for Shasta Dam workers. The enterprising young man would get a quarter for a hamburger, a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. 

It was during those early dam days when Bud came up with the signature style of cooking burgers, using an ice cream scooper to form meatballs and then mashing them flat with a spatula. (When Helen Henry, one of Damburger’s legion of regulars, asked Bud to put a pair of those meatballs together and not cook it until it was well done, the “Helen Burger” was born and remains on the menu.)

Damburger left the dam site but kept the name and relocated to Redding, starting first on Yuba Street and moving to Pine Street before settling on its current Placer Street location in 1962. Bud and his wife, Babe, operated Damburger until 1977; the Dickeys bought the business from Mike and Vicki Carr in 1979.

These days, Malik streamlines the burger process by using a tortilla press to flatten the patties—each a sixth of a pound—into the trademark pancake dimensions. Malik, manager Marla Nevens, and another employee form an assembly line each morning to make patties from the ground beef delivered from R&R Quality Meats. On a typical weekday, Damburger cooks flip about 200 patties.

“We do everything ourselves,” says Nevens, a Redding native who has worked at Damburger for 18 years and enjoys the quirky, independent nature of the place. “We print up gift certificates, do our own laundry, slice our own onions…people would ask my boss, when they would see me slicing onions, ‘Why don’t you get a machine for that?’ and he’d say, ‘She’s the machine for that.’”

“It’s a fun place to work,” agrees Malik. “We’ve got a good group. My biggest joy is interacting with the customers I’ve gotten to know. For a lot of them, it feels like an extended family. They’ve known me since I was a little girl.”

For longtime customers, stopping in at the Damburger is like padding down the hall and stepping into the kitchen. Newcomers “just like the environment—it’s friendly, upbeat, kind of old-school,” Malik says. “Kids like it because it’s unique and not some cookie-cutter thing. Kids know that when you go to the Damburger, it’s a treat.”

A sense of family surrounds the Damburger and envelops employees and customers both. Marge Thayer was one of Bud Pennington’s first employees and served hamburgers for 44 years, working well into her 80s. “When it got to be too much, she became the Damburger greeter. She wiped off tables and chatted with people.

“She was kind of sassy, a ‘get what you get, don’t throw a fit’ kind of person,” Malik says. “She didn’t know everybody’s name but she sure knew what they ate.”

While the venerable Damburger, available with single, double or even triple patties, remains front and center on the menu, the restaurant has added other options over the years to keep up with the times, including vegetarian and vegan burgers and whole wheat “skinny” buns. The newest addition is the “Hot Dam,” a burger spiced up with jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise.

Damburger celebrated its 75th anniversary in November with a week of 75-cent specials. On the Saturday featuring 75-cent Damburgers, the little restaurant went through 570 patties in three and a half hours and people happily waited up to 45 minutes for a bargain burger. 

“We get a lot of support from the community,” Nevens says. “It was amazing how many people joined us in our celebration. They kept coming in and saying how happy they were that we’re here and stayed so long.”

Damburger • 1320 Placer St., Redding • (530) 241-0136
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm weekdays; 10 am to 3 pm Saturdays;
11 am to 3 pm Sundays • www.damburger.net

Food+Dining, In Print damburger hamburgers restaurant
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