(In)famous in its day: the Nixon’s chain

nixonsDriveIn338Since the 35th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s 1974 resignation from the presidency was commemorated this past weekend, it’s as good a time as any to focus on his brother Donald’s brief career as a restaurateur in Southern California. In the short span of five years in the 1950s, Don managed to go out of business while doing some serious damage to brother Richard’s political fortunes.

He got into several pickles but the biggest issue concerned a 1956 loan of $205,000 he received from Howard Hughes’s tool company to rescue his failing restaurants. Richard Nixon was VP in the Eisenhower administration at the time. Although Don denied that his brother had any involvement in soliciting the loan, critics were not convinced and persisted in raising questions about several decisions the government made that were beneficial to defense contractor Hughes. The toxic issue dogged Nixon in his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign against John Kennedy and again in his failed 1962 California gubernatorial run.

nixonburgerREVThe chain of five Nixon’s restaurants began modestly in 1943 when the Nixon family’s grocery store, established in 1922 by father Francis Nixon in Whittier, added a coffee shop. Although Don was involved in running the coffee shop, his first real business venture took place in 1952 when he opened a drive-in on East Whittier Blvd. (shown above). Two years later he opened Nixon’s Family Restaurant, also on East Whittier, home of the “Nixon Burger” whose unfortunate, opportunistic name would be used to taunt Richard Nixon during his two terms as President. Next Don opened a drive-in near Disneyland, in Anaheim, and a restaurant and bakery in Fullerton. In 1957, despite the Hughes loan and proceeds from the sale of Nixon’s Market to a supermarket chain, Don Nixon put all five restaurants up for sale to settle the chain’s debts.

The Nixon’s at 822 E. Whittier became a Whirly’s Drive-in, which itself went out of business in 1962 or early 1963. The Anaheim Nixon’s, at Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave., was taken over by the Harris chain of Portland OR in 1958 after it was remodeled to include a cocktail lounge. Cocktails had been prohibited in the Nixon’s restaurants judging from a 1954 ad which proclaimed, “Since children are most welcome at Nixon’s – liquor is never served.”

In subsequent years as President, from 1969 to 1974, Richard Nixon kept close tabs on Don. At one point he had the Secret Service wiretap his phone. Richard also found Don a job that he hoped would keep him out of trouble. In 1970 staunch Republican J. Willard Marriott, founder of the Hot Shoppes and CEO of the Marriott Corporation, agreed to do the President a favor. Marriott appointed Don vice president in charge of franchises and acquisitions on the West Coast. Marriott officials denied that Don had any influence in helping the company win government contracts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

22 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

22 responses to “(In)famous in its day: the Nixon’s chain

  1. James Pack

    My father bought the property that contained the Whirly’s restaurant in 1960 from Mr. Nixon, if I’m not mistaken. Not 1963. It then became a Chrysler Plymouth Imperial Dealership. The one on Whittier Blvd. However, if my memory is off, maybe the property was next door and was eventually acquired by my father at a later date.

  2. martin

    I was 8 in 1961, and Donald Nixon was on my little league team (Donald Nixon’s son, of course). Don was a very generous and gracious man, treating our team to batting practice. I do not recall much about Don Jr., what position he played or anything but a vague recollection of his 8 y.o. face. The restaurant business, like so many labor intensive businesses are very very challenging, requiring total dedication. If only gubberman workers had any clue.

  3. Don Kirk

    The rumors were already abounding, when the Anaheim restaurant opened. I only ate there once (I was a kid) as dad wanted to try it; as Tricky Dick’s brother owned it. Later after it was a night club, a wax museum opened on the site; and then a hotel occupied the site of the Anaheim Nixon’s. I remember “Open 24 1/2 hr. a day” was on their sign. I moved from there in 1980; and don’t know what’s there now. Remember that whole area as orange groves and strawberry fields.

  4. I have a scarce image of the Fullerton Restaurant and Bakery on a postcard for sale on Ebay. If you have seen this too late to bid on the card, I would gladly send you the image.

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Fullerton-President-Nixon-Family-Restaurant-Coffee-Shop-Bakery-Scarce-Postcard-/300716643118

  5. Ron Haro

    Good and informative article. I didn’t know about the Hughes and Marriott involvement. That was especially interesting. Many great memories from the mid 60’s on Whittier Blvd. I grew up in Whittier and whenever in town to visit family, I go to JACK’S SALAD BOWL for breakfast, another longtime restaurant in Whittier.

    • Linda Barreda

      I also grew up in Whittier. Jack’s Salad Bowl is no longer there. Cruising Whittier Blvd. was the fun thing to do.

  6. Wow, remember Nixson drive inn. My sister worked there when she was in high school in Whittier. We always stopped there with my mom for ice cream cones, 1954. Fell in love in the 8th grade with my future husband. We trampolined next door and he was a cruiser at Whirly’s drive inn. Wow, was he cool — he didn’t know I was alive, lol. And for Bob’s Big Boy we cruised and cruised and cruised Bob’s and Whittier blvd 1960, 1964. Fun times.

  7. Nancy Hughes

    I grew up in Whittier. I remember eating at the drive-in and the restaurant. This was a treat for my family. But, what I remember best were the great bran muffins from the bakery at the Nixon market. Oh, to find those, again. Great article. Thank you

    • Brad Arrington

      So did I Nancy (as you well know!)! I wish I could find some photographs of the old Bobs on Whittier Blvd…….I’m sure there must be some SOMEPLACE….!

  8. Lawrene Nixon Anfinson

    Before my uncle was ever in politics my father’s original coffee shop, located in the same old building as the grocery store, was serving “Nixonburgers.” I sure wish people would keep their stories straight!

  9. Richard Barnes

    It was the Summer of 1960, and “Whirley’s” in Whittier, had become “THE” Teenage Hangout for many southland high schools,…including my own high school, Montebello High. There were 4 of us guys that used to hang around together at the time. And on a number of warm summer nights during the months of July and August of that year, we’d all pile into one car, each chip in a quarter for gas, and head out for Whirley’s in Whittier.

    First we’d cruise the Boulevard looking for others we knew. Then we’d pull into Whirley’s, go through the Drive-Thru Window, and order a Cheeseburger, Fries and a Coke. Or, if we weren’t that hungry, we’d just order a large Chocolate Malt. They were huge, and only cost 25 cents. Afterward, we’d cruise around and around the Restaurant looking for chicks, and checking out the other customized cars parked around the back. They were just early to mid-50s model cars. My 50 Chevy only cost me $200. My friend’s 55 Ford, only cost him $600. We didn’t know they would later be known as “Classics.” And like in the movie “American Graffiti”, we’d all have our car radios tuned to the same Radio Station, which amplified the Rock n’ Roll music being played, many times over. We also didn’t know the music would become “Classic”, either. We’d continue to cruise around Whirley’s until a parking spot opened up, then we’d join the others parked in the back, and watch the new arrivals cruise past us. If we were lucky, we’d catch the eye of a car full of girls, and it wasn’t long before we were all sitting and talking with one another, either next to, or in front of, our cars. God, What Sweet Memories! For us High School Seniors, I think we knew somewhere in our hearts and minds, that this would be for all of us, our “The Last Best Summer.”

    • Thanks for sharing your memories.

    • Eric Baker

      When Whirly’s closed, Bob’s Big Boy on the other side of the boulevard fulfilled the same role. I graduated from Montebello High in 1965 and Whittier Blvd. and Bob’s were the place to cruise and hang out. I do remember Whirly’s, though. Drive-ins were great!

  10. Doll, where was the restaurant in Fullerton located, do you know? Great story! Greater website find!

  11. Thanks for sharing such interesting info on this chain of restaurants. The images are very cool as well.
    Once again, Thanks, and I’ll definitely be back for more.

  12. Monica

    Are any of these chains still open?

  13. Absolutely fascinating, Jan. You are such a wealth of information.

    BTW, I just got back from camping by Watkins Glen. I was there for the Nascar race. The area around Seneca Lake was so busy and time was too short to check out the eateries however, I’m going back ASAP!!!

  14. Aimee S.

    Thanks Jan! Another gem of a story…at least to this youngster. LOL

    • Marty Burch

      Thank you for E-mailing this to me. Growing up in La Habra, I share in the nostalgia of each of your respondents. I, too, spent way too much time cruising Whittier Blvd. than was appropriate. I experience ” no shame ” in the admission. It was, after all, A TOTAL BLAST. My friends and I would head toward the Boulevard full of Fantasy and in high expectation of the events to come. Thank GOD for fantasy because none of our dreams ever materialized. As unsuccessful as our adventures were, I’d do it all over again cause all good things are more fun in the attempt than in the realization.

      The Burch Family and the Nixon Family share a long association. While I don’t pretend to have any real knowledge of the events that transpired, during those years, I can say that I had several dealings with Don and never found anything untoward in the way he presented himself. I can, however, say that I have been a friend of his son, Richard, for many years. I know that the Nixon Family have paid a large price for their association with the Presidency. ……My Grandfather used to state, laughingly, that there were several Horsethieves in our background. Boy, am I glad they weren’t famous.

      It’s good to reminisce. I hope that we do it well. What if tomorrow puts you in a situation that leaves you with decisions that, at every turn, must destroy your dreams and leave you broken ? Is it really that important to punish the family too?

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