Good Grease: Greensboro's Lively Homage
to a Dead Franchise
Dead Mule School of Southern Literature
January 16th, 2008
Posted by Aaron Gilbreath

When a woman walked into Greensboro, North Carolina’s Beef Burger restaurant and asked about dietary options, owner Ralph Harvis snickered. “Lady,” he said, “you might as well turn around and get back in your car because I’m here to fatten you up.” She ordered the biggest burger they had.

The name may sound mundane, but Beef Burger’s ambiance, like the owner, sure isn’t. Once part of a sprawling Eastern burger chain, Greensboro’s beloved throwback is one of two sole survivors of the original 800-plus Biff-Burger Drive-In franchises. Though it changed names from Biff to Beef in 1981 following the parent company’s collapse, this bona fide institution retains most of the chain’s original menu items, trademark cooking methods, and all of its pastel-and-vinyl charm.

Biff-Burger, short for “Best in Fast Food,” colored highways from Toronto to Florida with its red, yellow, and blue diamond insignia between the mid-’50s and ’70s, particularly in the Southeast where restaurants dotted the land with a near Waffle House ubiquity. Besides the thick shakes and soft, golden fries, what endeared people to Biff was its signature burger: 100% beef cooked on the chain’s patented rotisserie rack. Known, in delightful Atomic Era fashion, as the “Roto-Broiler,” this shiny, stainless steal unit cooked patties on spinning circular racks, even catching the flavorful drippings on sesame seed buns toasting simultaneously below. After a few minutes between glowing heating elements (think giant space heater), the cooked burgers were dipped in a tangy, tomato-based sauce—another Biff signature—and loaded with thick tomato, sliced onion, and of course, crisp lettuce. The result was a charbroiled, home cooked taste lacking in most of the day’s chain burgers. Beef Burger still does it this way, thanks to Ralph.

Ralph bought the store in 1971 and continues to Roto-Broil his burgers, albeit on a slightly dented unit smudged from four decades of fruitful spinning. Each patty gets its deserved dip in special sauce, a mix of ketchup, mustard, pickled relish, and 27 spices that tastes like sweet barbecue sauce. The store bears the classic Biff-Burger architectural features—walk-up counter, W-shaped steel girder roof—as well as its own line of cups, uniforms, and wax paper wrappers featuring the chain’s insignia and cartoon “Biff boy” trademark. Customer photos and handwritten signs announcing new items like fried green beans decorate the counter, while complimentary newspaper clippings and franchise memorabilia adorn a dining room mini-museum under the words “Those were the days.”

Big Boy

If Ralph Harvin’s life can be seen as a celebration of drive-in food’s simple pleasure, then his restaurant pays homage to a dead franchise’s trademarks while maintaining the lowly burger’s profile in the rib-saturated South.

Whenever I’m in Greensboro I stop by for double. “Hey,” I heard a portly regular say as he approached the counter. “I’ll take a Big Mac.”

Ralph leaned smiling through the tiny pickup window and slapped the air. “How you doing there trouble?” he said, and rang up his order without asking what he wanted.

Copyright © January 16, 2008
Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

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