On South Dakota State University’s Hobo Day Nov. 2, 1929, Harold and Gladys Nikalson fired up a little stove burning what was then known as “white gas” and starting turning out what became the most famous, enduring hamburger ever in Brookings, South Dakota.
They came north in the old family car from Spencer, Iowa, earlier that year intending to emulate the success of the Swezey hamburger experiment that proved so popular in the 1930s that the shops ballooned to 77 in the Midwest. The hamburgers were different because they were made using a tank fry method. The only survivor of that glorious hamburger venture is what today is known as Nick’s Hamburger Shop at the busy corner of Main Avenue and Fifth Street in Brookings, South Dakota, home of South Dakota State University, the state’s largest institution of higher learning.
The hamburger that sold for five cents through the Dirty Thirties up to the beginning of WW II in 1941 was an immediate success in Brookings. The nickels and dimes coming in were dropped into the shop’s tin cupcake pan that served as a cash register.
When he was old enough, Nick and Gladys’ son Harold, Jr. donned a white apron and helped serve the hamburgers on a square of waxed paper rather than on a plate. He learned the secret formula for the Nickburger relish, how to slice the onions just so, and the mixture of the secret contents of the tank fry batter that turned prime hamburger into a mouth-watering delicacy.
Then Harold left for service in WW II, ending up in the Philippines. When the war ended he picked up the spatula to help run the growing business. What would be the shop’s busiest day ever was on Hobo Day Oct. 18, 1947 when the Jackrabbits played arch rival University of South Dakota. Veterans were back and thousands of alumni, friends and football fans whose travels had been limited by gas and tire rationing during the war, were able to travel again. They flocked to Brookings.
On that busy day, the Nikalson’s sold 4,450 hamburgers, which by now known affectionately as Nick Burgers. That record still stands today. It’s a tall stack of burgers, when you consider that the little shop only has twenty stools and a little bit of standing room. But the “Buy ‘Em by the Sack” slogan helped move the happy customers in and out the door.
South Dakota State University and former residents still head for a sack full of inexpensive Nick Burgers in great numbers. And with Brookings High School once less than two blocks from the shop, Bobcats from BHS migrated down town to invest a quarter in a tasty lunch at Nick’s.
|The Price Is Always Right
In the 1950s, it was possible for a student to buy two Nickburgers for a quarter, or one Nickburger, a small bag of potato chips and a pint of milk for twenty-five cents.
In 1947, Harold, Jr. took over management after its successful run of 18 years during the hard times of the Depression and the rationing and the sad days of WW II.
In 1975 Harold, Jr. was ready to retire, and Duane Larson purchased the shop where he had worked during high school and college since 1968. During his tenure, the shop was named by the Washington Post newspaper as one of the eighty-two most popular hamburger shops in the nation.
On Aug. 1, 2004, Dick Fergen, a gregarious, personable 1960 Brookings High School graduate and former SDSU students bought the shop from Larson. Fergen, whose father was a former Jackrabbit basketball star and owner of the popular Fergen’s Mens Store then located a few blocks south of the shop, was practically raised on Nickburgers.
He remembers that as a kid he had the weekend choice of either investing his quarter allowance in two Saturday night Nickburgers with enough left for a movie, or having only one Nickburger with the change invested in popcorn and his movie matinee. Usually it was two Nickburgers and to heck with the popcorn.
In 2008, in anticipation of the remodel of the shop he purchased and designed a trailer to be in use in the Nick's park while the shop was under renovations, so we never had to close down completely. The trailer then became our mobile unit used for caterings of all kinds from weddings, birthday party's, graduations, SDSU and local football games, and class reunions.
The shop has over the years become an institution in Brookings. It’s a familiar stop, because an effort is made to keep the old ambiance. Not much has changed. Hamburgers are still served on a square of waxed paper to save on dish washing, and there’s a glass of water for you if you ask for it.
Alumni and former residents include a stop at the familiar confines of Nick’s on their itineraries when the return to town for visits and reunions. Several generations of high school and college students have acquired the Nickburger taste. Many alumni and former residents passing through the state make a side trip to Brookings just to fill up on Nickburgers. More than once, a person with a layover at the Sioux Falls Airport has been known to rent a car, drive to Brookings, and enjoy his or her fill of Nickburgers.
The quaint little shop has become a common denominator with which everyone regardless of age, station in life or other interests can relate. It is not uncommon for strangers to meet at some secluded spot on earth, learn that they both attended SDSU or once lived in Brookings, and invariably there is mention of the great burgers served at the corner of Main Avenue and Fifth Street.
New owners Troy and Todd Fergen. Same great burgers, same look just new names! Hope to see you soon.
Check out the Nickburger Trivia!