Saturday, August 9, 2014

The End of Prince's Hamburgers

Prince's Hamburgers was a little further up the Gulf Freeway from the South Belt, but a Houston staple.

A few pieces from the morgue files regarding their slow demise from 1985 through 1990 when the original location finally closed on South Main


Rene Hugueley sits behind the red and green counter at the Prince's Drive and talks about the days when pretty young carhops made good money running around in snappy satin outfits.

She says once in the '50s some guy who's related to Houston television star Marvin Zindler drove up, bought a nickel cup of coffee and left her a $49.95 tip on the metal tray.

It wasn't that unusual to make a ten buck tip off one car back in the days when burgers sold for a quarter, Hugueley says.

But people aren't really keen any more about sitting in their cars when it's 02 begrees in the shade when they can go someplace fancy and spend five-bucks for a fancy hamburger with a fancy name.

There used to be a dozen or more Prince's eateries scattered around Houston at one time or another. Now there are only three and one doesn't have any carhops at all.

Some guy with a squeaky voice wants a beer and burger, hold the tomatoes. Hugueley jots it down, clips it to a metal line and slides the order down the counter to Tony, who's almost dancing, he's working so fast.

Hugueley owns part of the Prince's Drive-In at Cullen just off the Gulf Freeway. The other part owner is a woman who doesn't want her name or picture in the paper because, she says, she's not as young as she used to be. She wants to be a phantom of sorts.

Hugueley knows the good old days are pretty much over. She pops a fresh slug of pink bubblegum in her mouth and says, "The glamour's all gone. it really is. You can't get pretty girls to work out here in the sun, wind and rain when they can work in a club."

There for a while, years back, Prince's Drive-In has a watigin list of good-looking women with long legs who wanted to carhop. The money was better than a lot of office jobs. Now it's just the other way around, and the pretty young girls have their eyes set on better things.

But carhopping back then did have it drawbacks. Guys were always trying to hustle the ladies, especially the ones that showed a little belly. Hugueley says she was always having to say no to the boys.

3/23/86 Nostalgia about Prince's Natural
South Main hamburger drive-in celebrating 50 years

McDonald's, Popeye's, Wendy's, Jack-in-the-Box, and Taco Bell are all in the neighborhood.

But Martha Serres wasn't interested. She pulled her blue gas guzzler into Prince's Drive-In on South Main to order her hamburger, just like she did more than 30 years ago.

"I used to come here when I was a teenager growing up and I still love the hamburgers," she said.

"I have a lot of good memories about this place, I sure do."

Like the time she and seven of her girlfriends piled into a car during a slumber party and drove to Prince's about midnight.

It was a pretty risque move, at least for the 1950s, because the girls were still in their jammies.

"That was the best slumber party I ever want to," Serres said. "And the hamburgers still taste just like they did then."

It's natural for people who grew up in Houston to get nostalgic about Prince's. "Come as you are, eat in the car!" was the advertising jingle.

But brace yourself for another nostalgia rush because the original Prince's Drive-In at 4509 South Main turns 50 this year.

They've spruced up the old place and plan to display old photos from the '30s, '40s, and '50s beginning today through April.

The photos could make a lot of Prince's customer fell, well, awfully old. On the other hand, they might suddenly feel like they're 16 again by dining in, placing an order and having a carhop deliver a burger, malt, and fries on a car tray. The food fare has remained pretty much the same all these years, but the carhops of the past have gone through some changes.

In the old days, when they dressed up in  short skirts, white boots and majorette hats, the bright-eyes car hops were pretty enough to attract the attention of Life magazine and compete in carhop beauty contests.

Today you might see a carhop with a tattoo on her forearm, and their bating beauty figures have filled out some. Their uniforms of today -- black slacks and a red blouse -- aren't too flashy, either. But they're still sweet as honey.

Of the 20 Prince's Drive-Ins that were once in the Houston area, only three are left.

But the original Prince's Drive-In on South Main is still in business at the same building that once housed a Weber Root Beer stand in 1936 when the Prince family started the business.

The neighborhood, of course,has changed in 50 years, and the original Prince's find itself on the fringe of the Third Ward ghetto. The majority of its customers during the night hours are black.

There also is plenty of new competition in the area from the big fast food chains, but Prince's managers to hold on to a lot of loyal customers.

"They're diehards because they've been raised with Prince's. They say "i Can remember coming up here with my grandparents'" says Roberta Jeffrey, who first hired on at Prince's for 35 cents an hour about 20 years ago.

The car clubs, such a Convertibles of Houst, congregate in the Prince's parking lot of South Main regularly. They're so attached to the place that they volunteered to paint it to prapare for Prince's half-century celebration and the convertible club's five-year anniversary.

"It's nostalgia," Gary Burns, president of the ragtop club, says of the attraction of Prince's. "It's one of the few drive-ins we've got left to go to."

The older crowd commonly places its order at Prince's then drives across the street to McDonald's to satisfy the kids' addiction to the Big Mac.

The carhops have plenty of stories. They've hustled out to cars with an order only to discover a buck-naked customer behind the wheel.

A "topless wedding" was held a few years ago, with the bride and groom in a convertible and the preacher standing in the back of a wrecker.

Not long ago, a pregnant woman about to deliver her baby stopped in.

"I asked her when she was going to deliver and she said, :Any minute, but I had to have a hamburger,' laughed Elizabeth Flores, an employee since 1948 who competed in some of the carhop beauty contests.

Prince's passed out cards recently to find out why some of the customers have remained so loyal over the years. Some of the replies showed that burger eating wasn't the only activity going on in the parked cars.

"There were many people who wrote, 'My children were conceived at Prince's' It shocked the hell out of me," chuckled Karl Stefan, the managing partner of the restaurant.

The Prince's employee with the most seniority is 63-year old Laura West, who still works in the kitchen part time.


Drive-In closing after 56 years

Fast times, slow business spell end for piece of Houston's past

Elizabeth Flores, part owner of Prince's Hamburgers, remembers in the 1950s when Main Street in Houston reminded her of Reno on a Friday or Saturday night.

"The cars were going up and down Main Street stopping in for a Coke or something to eat," said Flores, who has owner the drive-in business at 4509 S. Main since 1950.

But that, like drive-in restaurants, is a thing of the past. 

Now most of the traffic flows above Prince's on the elevated portion of the Southwest Freeway. Most of the old businesses are closed, and the apartment buildings and homes are gone. To make matters worse, a McDonald's has located across the street. 

The result of those demographic changes has caused the end of a Houston business institution. The hamburger restaurant, the last of 20 Prince's locations around town, is schedules to close Sunday night after 56 years.

"The business isn't good anymore," Flores said Tuesday night. "We have pretty good business on the day shift, but the night shift is almost dead. After 8 o'clock when you go down Main Street, every not and then you see a car."

And no longer do you see the once-traditional Prince's carhops in the shiny red and white uniforms racing -- at one time on roller skates -- through the crowded parking lot. In fact, no more than six cars at a time are waiting for those traditional burgers. 

Prince's is he original restaurant  in that chain. Flores said it started in 1934 in the same building. The building once housed a Weber Root Beer stand shortly before the Prince family started the business. 

12/17/90 Sentimental Customers' Lettuce Keeps Prince's open -- for now

In the midst of auctioning off Prince's very last hamburger, co-owner John Broussard got an emergency call from the Prince family, which still own the land under the hamburger stand at 4509 S. Main.

"They said, 'Don't let them close!' said Broussard, referring to Buck and Charles Prince. Co-owner Elizabeth Flores broke into tears of joy.

"It was like a movie," said Broussard. "So we couldn't auction off the last hamburger, since it wouldn't be the last one."

Buck and Charles Prince -- sons of Prince's Hamburgers Doug "King" Prince -- decided the recent resurgence of business in the wake of publicity surrounding Princes Hamburgers demise would justify staying open at least another week.

(Prince's closed up and move to the west side and is still in business.)

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