Mearle’s: The Hamburger Joint That Was Frozen in Time
For decades the restaurant was known for its good food, friendly service, and special atmosphere, all dished out in heaping portions from a building across from the College of the Sequoias. One fan affectionately called the drive-in a “hamburger joint frozen in time.” Unfortunately, the popular eatery is gone, but the building remains as a reminder to us all that the classic Visalia business, known as Mearle’s, left its mark in Visalia history.
The idea to build the restaurant had its beginning with the decision to construct the new Visalia Junior College campus. As Fresno professional boxer, Ralph Giordano, fighting as “Young Corbett III,” was looking for a business opportunity, he was attracted by the idea of a restaurant near the new college. But in the late 1930s, he gave up the idea and instead contacted his friend and occasional-sparring partner, Dick Beshwate, and encouraged him to start it. In 1939, Dick and his two brothers, Abe and Ted, left for Visalia on their path to become restaurateurs.
They contacted Edwards Realty about the “barley field” across from the college, and soon the brothers and Edwards Investment Co. had a plan to build the drive-in on the corner of the Tulare-Visalia Highway (now Mooney Blvd.) and Myrtle Ave.
In June 1939, a building permit was issued to general contractor L.C. Clark for construction of a $5,000 “commercial building” on lots 10 and 11, block 3, in Byfield Park Tract #3. During construction, the three brothers lived in the Palace Hotel, and it was there they came up with the name TAD’S for their restaurant, using the first initials of each of their names (Ted, Abe, and Dick).
On Sept. 27, 1940, the brothers announced the official opening of TAD’S. Its style was “streamline moderne” with a beautiful blue and white canvas awning wrapped around it and an electrifying neon ice cream soda glass mounted on top. It had drive-up service outside with modern booths and counter service inside. The menu offered complete dinners including steak, chicken, and chops from 65 to 85 cents, and fountain service for milkshakes, sodas, and malts.
The three brothers worked at the restaurant along with their sisters Margarite, Violet, and Maidelle. Louise Gillingham, a non-family member, was hired as a carhop, and employment soon turned into love as she and Dick married in 1942.
As the U. S. entered World War II, all three brothers went off to fight, leaving the sisters and Louise to operate the fledgling business. When the war ended, the three brothers returned to Visalia, but family interest in the restaurant had waned.
One regular customer, A. J. “Joe” Heston, expressed interest in owning the business. In 1946 the Beshwates sold it to him and it became D’S. It didn’t last long, however, and in 1947 the restaurant changed hands again. Millard Brame and his wife took over and it became the Visalia Drive-In. Not only did the Brame’s work in the restaurant, they lived in the basement of the building. They ran it for about three years before it closed, and the building sat vacant for the next year.
In 1951, George Nielsen, the founder of Nielsen’s Creamery in Tulare, and his son-in-law, Chase Hoffman, reopened the drive-in as “Nielsen’s,” one more in the Nielsen chain. Mearle Heitzman, a trusted employee and roving manager, added the newly acquired restaurant to his responsibility list. Heitzman learned the restaurant business well, frequently working 12-16 hours a day.
When George Nielsen died, Hoffman took over and he decided to sell the restaurants. On January 1, 1961, Heitzman purchased the Mooney Blvd. restaurant, waiting a year before putting the Mearle’s sign up. For the next 34 years, Heitzman would be the restaurant’s owner.
Employees and customers alike watched Heitzman spend long hours handling every aspect of its operation. Some even thought he lived there.
One young lady who had a special fondness for the drive-in was Melissa Hulsey. In Oct. 1970, this 21-year-old was hired as a waitress. In 1980, the now experienced waitress asked Heitzman about the possibility of someday buying the drive-in. He was open to the idea and promoted her to manager to prepare her for ownership. In the years that followed, the two would casually discuss the eventual sale. In April 1995, Heitzman asked if she was ready to take over. A little hesitant, she began considering a partner, and soon she teamed up with her sister, Barbara. On October 1, 1995, it became official. Heitzman retired, and the two sisters were the new owners of Mearle’s.
For the next several years the restaurant went through both good times and bad. Eventually, the challenges of running a restaurant became too much. Costs became difficult to manage, and in 2005, an eviction notice appeared and the doors were locked tight. The building remained vacant and, through a series of legal maneuvers and other unfortunate circumstances, the future of the business and building looked bleak. It stood tenantless for several years and fell into disrepair. It became an easy target for graffiti, and frequent comments were heard about its deteriorating condition. Its future was in serious doubt.
Then The Habit Burger Grill came to town. In October 2010, the company presented their plans for the vacant building to city officials. The plans were approved, and for the next year the building was gutted and went through major renovation. The Habit loved the location and recognized the historic character of the building. In their remodel, they honored its history and incorporated historical elements into their design. The following year, The Habit opened in the 71-year-old landmark building.
The Habit’s CEO Russ Bendel was personally involved in the opening of the Visalia location and has fond memories of his Visalia experience noting, “All the parties were very cooperative.” Does he regret coming to Visalia and choosing the Mearle’s building? Absolutely not. The Habit is “delighted to be in Visalia,” and pleased to have a “very successful store.” n