Olympia’s Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn has a foot in two worlds. The classic drive-thru hamburger stand is straight out of the 1950s, while its eco-friendly practices make it utterly 21st century.
Folks drive up to the burger shack window to grab breakfast, lunch, or dinner; they can then drive off or eat on site at a colorful outdoor seating area. Once they’re done, about 90 percent of what’s passed through the window is 100 percent compostable.
First, there’s the food. You’ll find fresh, made-to-order burgers, fries, onions rings, chicken strips, hot dogs and more – all of it deep-fried. They also mix up milk shakes and malts in a dozen flavors.
“None of it’s good for you and we don’t claim that it is,” says the gregarious and instantly likeable Michael Fritsch. But it is delicious, and the drive-thru enjoys a loyal fan following.
Michael’s parents, Chuck and Mary Fritsch, bought the place in 1969 from Jim Eagan, son of original owner Millie Eagan. Chuck Fritsch worked at the Eagan family’s stand, a different building in the same location, in his first job, at age 15.
Millie opened the original stand in 1948, naming it In and Out. Coincidentally, the now famous In-N-Out Burger opened the same year in California.
Michael bought Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn from his parents almost three years ago, after a lifetime spent in the 12-foot by 24-foot building. “There are photos of me hanging out in my crib in the back of this place,” Michael says with a laugh. “So I’ve also been here since 1969, off and on.”
The “Inn” in Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn was intentionally misspelled by Chuck Fritsch when he changed the stand’s name in 1969, simply because, according to Michael, “Dad likes to irritate people.”
One wouldn’t expect the owner of a hamburger stand to be vegetarian, but that’s exactly what Michael Fritsch is – most of the time.
“I’m a vegetarian outside of the building, let’s put it that way,” he says.
Michael is occasionally called on to test food items of the non-vegetarian variety (i.e., 99 percent of his menu), such as when Eastside Big Tom made the recent switch to Oregon Natural Meats for its beef patties.
“We switched over to their locally produced, humanely treated, no additives, no growth hormone beef,” he explains. The Oregon company custom makes Eastside Big Tom’s patties. “We’re the only people in Thurston County with it.”
He hasn’t advertised the new beef yet, but sales have quickly proven the move was a positive one.
“We’ve been doing it for two months now and sales of our beef went from 500 pounds a week in patties to 700 pounds – in a month,” Michael says.
Eastside Big Tom offers a mean burger, but also serves up a chicken sandwich, fish sandwich, hot dogs, chicken strips, clam chowder, and more. Sides include crinkle-cut french fries, tater tots, or onion rings.
Breakfast fare is back after a 20-year hiatus, with deep-fried egg-sausage-bacon-and-cheese-heavy sandwiches fittingly dubbed the “Heart Stopper,” “Blockage,” “Close Call,” and “Light Weight.”
There are a couple of ostensibly “healthier” lunch and dinner items on the menu. Vegans and vegetarians can substitute beef or chicken with a Boca burger or soy-basked chicken product.
“We cook the Bocas for exactly two minutes and 15 seconds, which cooks them exactly all the way through, instead of the eight minutes to grill them,” explains Michael.
Why the need for speed? “Everything has to be speed-based, that’s why my breakfasts are all deep-fried, too.” I’m competing with places like McDonald’s and Burger King that make their food up ahead, which I don’t do, so I had to come up with a way to make a sandwich in two minutes or less, and fresh.”
What many folks don’t always realize is that, done properly and in the correct amount of time, deep-fried foods fried don’t actually absorb all that much grease.
Anything you order at Eastside Big Tom – well, maybe skip it for the breakfast items and clam chowder — can be slathered or dipped in Eastside Big Tom’s Goop sauce. Millie developed the concoction back in 1948, made up of mayonnaise, mustard, salad dressing, and sweet pickle relish.
Michael swears it’s addictive. “The color can be off-putting because it’s a funky yellow, but you taste it and a minute later your mouth is like, ‘Hey, I’ll take a little more of that if there’s any left,’” he jokes.
First-timers can get their Goop for free. “We know we’ll get them addicted,” Michael jokes.
But for those preferring plain old ketchup and mustard, just mayo, or no fixings at all, custom orders are welcome.
“I’d say 25 percent of what we do a day is custom,” says Michael. Anything the eatery makes can be customized. “It’s made to order. You order it, and then it hits the grill.”
Eastside Big Tom has landed many local awards and garnered some national attention, as well.
According to Fritsch, they’ve been named in The Olympian’s “Best of the South Sound” burger category “pretty much since the beginning of time.” They were also named best burger last year by the Weekly Volcano’s “Best of Olympia” reader’s poll.
Burger guru George Motz’s featured Eastside Big Tom in his book Hamburger America and MSNBC’s website named the stand in a national top ten list last year.
Back to the future-friendly eco-conscious side of this old-fashioned burger stand. Solar power fires up the hot water, the building uses 100 percent green energy from Puget Sound Energy, an electric car charging station sits on the lot, bikes can be locked up in bicycle racks, and water is conserved through water-saving devices. Forty-year-old light fixtures are also being replaced with energy-efficient lighting.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Michael explains simply. “And I’m trying to teach others that if I can do it in this strange little tiny box of mine, anyone can do it. It’s kind of a slap in the face to the bigger boys that say ‘We can do that.’ You know, if I can do it in my little shack and pull it off, so can you.”
Michael has 13 employees, but can still be found on site most days from open to close. He likes the interaction with the customers.
“Breakfast is some of the most fun for me, because we’re not so busy yet that I can’t talk to each customer individually,” he says. “I’m kind of known as the eccentric breakfast guy who always has some strange story to tell every day.”
Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn
2023 4th Avenue East
Olympia, WA 98501
Monday through Friday, 7:00am to 10:30am
Saturday and Sunday, 8:00am to 10:30am
Lunch and dinner hours:
Monday through Saturday, 10:30am to 8:00pm
Sunday, 10:30am to 6:30pm
Cash only, does not accept credit or debit cards