SALT LAKE CITY — Sometime on Saturday evening, Jan. 16, when his shift is over, Jim Merrill is going to take off his apron, walk out the door and call it a career.
Fifty-two years since it began.
It was on New Year’s Eve 1968 that Jim became an employee of the family company that runs Litzas Pizza and Hires Big H hamburger drive-in on the corner of 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City. Jim’s uncle, Wayne Housel, was the manager at Litzas and got him a job washing dishes, a position he accepted not for the lofty title but because it paid 95 cents an hour and Jim, a 16-year-old at East High School with a newly minted driver’s license, was in serious need of gas money.
He had no idea he would never work for anyone else — unless you count the U.S. Army, which drafted him when he was 20 in 1972. He stayed in the service for two years until a blown out knee resulted in a medical discharge that landed him back home in Utah.
While rehabbing the knee and deciding what to do next with his life, he got his old job back, they made him assistant manager and, well, one thing led to another.
“Our longest, most loyal employee ever,” said Mark Hale, who with his brother Jon co-owns the Hires/Litzas restaurant group that was started when their father, Don, opened Hires in 1959 and Litzas in 1965. “Everybody knows Jim. He’s got that cheerful personality, he’s tall, with a big voice, and a really gentle spirit. Everybody loves him.”
As Hires has become a Salt Lake institution, Jim has become something of an institution himself.
Both are out of a time warp. Hires is named after a root beer you can’t get anywhere anymore (except at Hires), it still has carhops — something that phased out with The Fonz, and it sits in a little cinderblock building on one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Salt Lake City, selling malts and burgers as the world goes by.
Jim, he’s the ubiquitous maitre d’, the friendly man at the cash register who greets everyone who comes in like they’re his best friends, which many of them are.
And he’s never worked anywhere else. How many millennials are going to be able to say that?
Ask Jim, who has been the manager of Hires Big H for the past 33 years, why he’s stayed 52 years and he doesn’t have to think about it.
“I love people, that’s all I can say,” he says. “I really enjoy the association I have with the customers and the employees that have been with me for so long. I’ve always looked forward to coming to work. A lot of people can’t say that about their job, but I can. If you enjoy where you are, why leave?”
Also, he adds, “I was lucky enough to work for a really good family instead of a corporation.”
It’s not a stretch to say Hires qualifies as Jim’s home away from home.
“On any given day, I’d say I know 80 to 85% of the people who come in,” he says. “I think that’s Hires’ secret. People come and then they come back.”
At 68, he’d like to keep serving up Big H’s — Hires’ signature burger that Jim attests has a lot to do with why people keep coming back — but all that standing behind the counter over the years hasn’t done his reconditioned knees any favors.
And it didn’t help a year and a half ago when a belligerent motorist ran over his leg.
The incident was Jim at his most loyal. The driver in question had been asked on multiple occasions to not park in the customer spots. When Jim finally said he was going to call the police, the driver gunned it and ran over his leg.
After Jim had surgery on his ankle, the company showed its gratitude for his loyalty and support by sending him to Wisconsin to watch his favorite NFL football team, the Green Bay Packers, play in the fall of 2019.
“That was incredible for a lifelong Packers fan,” said Jim. “But it’s really just indicative of how I’ve been treated all along.”
In retirement, the first thing he’s going to do is get knee replacements on both legs.
After that, it’s on to easy street, although Jim’s not at all sure what that will look like.
“They said I can come back, maybe work the lunch hour and say hello to customers,” said the ultimate company man. “That sounds nice. I think I’d like that. Because I have to be honest, walking away from here isn’t going to be easy.”