It's In the Gene's
By Jon Lewis
Gene's Hamburgers a Redding Icon
Story: Jon Lewis Photo: Lowell Martinson
Back in 1954, Mike Nash had a pretty sweet routine as a fourth-grader at Cypress School. Every day, he’d walk over to Gene’s Hamburgers for lunch. His order never varied—a cheeseburger and a strawberry shake.
That little noontime extravagance would have set Nash back 24 cents alone for the cheeseburger. Luckily for him, his father, Gene, had recently opened the South Market Street hamburger stand, so lunch was on the house.
Skip ahead some 54 years and Nash is still making the daily trek to Gene’s, only these days it’s as the owner and he’s grilling burgers instead of ordering them. During that intervening half-century, Gene’s has become an institution in Redding, an iconic drive-in that has served up burgers, fries and shakes to generations of hungry north staters.
Gene Nash opened the restaurant in May 1954, back when a hamburger went for 19 cents and the signature sandwich, a Geneburger, commanded a whopping 34 cents.
Nash started working at his dad’s shop when he was in the fifth grade. “I got five bucks a week to clean up the parking lot. Actually I got seven, but I paid the neighbor kid two bucks to do it on weekends,” Nash says.
By the time he was a freshman at Shasta High, Nash had worked his way to an inside job. After high school, college, a divorce, a move to Hawaii and marriage to his wife, Evelyn, Nash returned to Redding and took over Gene’s in 1980.
It was about then that Nash decided to celebrate Gene’s anniversary, and figured having some hot rods hanging out would be a great way to mark the drive-in’s milestone. Nash contacted a car club that used to hang out at Blue’s Drive-in on Eureka Way and offered its members $10 each to bring 10 hot rods to Gene’s for the night.
Not long after, Blue’s closed and the hot rodders starting hanging out at Gene’s for free. Since then, Gene’s has served as the hangout of choice for car enthusiasts. On Thursday, nights when the weather is nice, you can find more than 50 cars on display while their owners share sodas and camaraderie.
To add to the four-wheeled fun, Nash started an annual contest to pick the car of the year. Selected in May or June, the winner gets a likeness of his or her car painted on one of the drive-in walls—an enshrinement that’s worth its weight in gold as far as bragging rights go.
The car connection makes Gene’s a natural for the Kool April Nites crowd, and during car show week in April, the scene at Gene’s looks like it was lifted right off the “American Graffiti” movie set.
“Kool April Nites is the busiest week of the year for me,” Nash says.
“I really don’t do anything other than be prepared to work really hard. I double the size of the staff. If it were that busy all year long, I’d either be a millionaire or dead. It’s a great boost, and it comes right at tax time too.”
The Kool April Nites organizers appreciate Nash’s efforts and showed their love earlier this year by making Gene’s the theme of the 2008 show.
The recognition “just about brought tears to my eyes,” says Nash, and it was clear the grilled onions had nothing to do with the sentiment. “I was very honored to have been chosen for that.”
The honor was especially fitting, considering that the business may not be around too much longer. The drive-in property, including the site of the former McColl’s Dairy, is on the market and Nash has a little less than two years left on his lease.
Nash says he has no idea how, or if, he fits into future plans for the property. “I don’t know if they’re going to leave me here, tear me down or rebuild me. Hopefully I’ll find out something.”
And after that many years behind the grill, Nash says the idea of a break has some appeal. “If they leave me here, I’ll probably sell it. I’m ready to retire.” •
2515 S Market St., Redding (530) 241-4381