I was driving between Fargo and Sioux Falls recently and had the chance to stop back into Nick's Hamburger Shop in Brookings, SD. The following is the original post on Road Tips about the place, followed by an update on the "new" Nick's -
Honestly, I don't know who it was who originally told me about Nick's Hamburger Shop in Brookings, SD. All I know is that Nick's is literally a statewide institution in South Dakota. And it was billed as a must-visit. I was driving between Fargo and Sioux Falls last fall and I had time to stop in to Nick's to try a Nickburger.
Nick's Hamburger Shop has a long and storied history. In 1929, Gladys and Harold Nikalson (right) opened the door to their little 20-seat hamburger shop in downtown Brookings. The method of cooking their burgers was called "tank-frying". It's similar to the style that 2 Mits Burgers in Elkader, IA uses to cook their burgers - cooking them on a grill with water.
The Nickburgers were a huge hit with the townspeople and the students at South Dakota State University located just blocks from the downtown area in Brookings. The burgers were five cents each for the first 12 years Nick's was in existence, and people would pay for their burgers by placing coins in a tin can on the front counter as there was no cash register at Nick's.
When Nick went off to World War II, his son, Nick, Jr., began his career at Nick's Hamburger Shop. Nick, Jr. eventually took over for his parents in 1947 and began to take Nick's to new levels of success. Suddenly, business was booming as people would line up to buy Nickburgers by the sack full.
In 1975, Nick, Jr. retired and he was bought out by Duane Larson, a long-time employee of Nick's. Larson carried on the tradition of serving the Nickburgers on wax paper and selling them by the sack.
When Larson was getting ready to retire in 2004, a local colorful character by the name of Dick Fergen bought Nick's. Fergen was literally raised on Nickburgers as he was a native of Brookings and attended South Dakota State. While Fergen says he has "big plans" for Nick's, he's committed to upholding the integrity of the burgers that have literally been the same since 1929.
Many former students continue to come back to Nick's for a number of years long after they've graduated from SDSU. For many people in South Dakota, Nick's Hamburger Shop is truly a destination. In fact, Nick's is so famous, there is a book about the place (left).
I got into Brookings around the noon hour and tried to make my way to the corner of 5th and Main in the downtown area (see map). I was then surprised to see that Main Ave. was literally torn up, undergoing some major renovation and improvement. I had to sort of find my way around the construction and was able to park on 5th St. just on the north side of Nick's building.
My second surprise came as I walked up to Nick's front door. They were closed. As I looked in the window, it appeared they were undergoing a massive renovation. Then I noticed a small sign - they were open next door, albeit serving Nickburgers out of a small trailer in the empty lot next to the building on the south side. They had a number of picnic tables set up and there was a good sized line of people at the order window, and a number of people milling about waiting for their finished burgers.
(Update #1 - It turns out that the vacant lot next to Nick's has been there since 1985 when a fire destroyed a couple buildings next to Nick's. Dick Fergen bought the lots, paved them over and put out picnic tables on the pavement. In the late spring to early fall months, Fergen puts up a tent on the lot and lets people enjoy the burgers in the shade.
The trailer that Nick's was using during this visit is now used to cook burgers at events around southeastern South Dakota, as well as at South Dakota State football games.)
At the time, I didn't know Nickburgers were small - about the half the size of most hamburgers. Only after reading about Nick's after I ate there, I then realized that's the reason why some people buy 'em by the sack.
There isn't much on the menu at Nick's - burgers, chips, homemade pie, drinks and shakes. You have your choice of a single or double hamburger, or a single or double cheeseburger. I waited in line for a couple minutes, then ordered a double cheeseburger with everything. I passed on Nick's famous homemade pickle relish, which uses the original recipe Harold Nikalson came up with in the 30's.
As I waited for my Nickburger, more and more people began to come up to the small trailer to order burgers. One was a family of four where the dad had been a former student at SDSU and he wanted to stop and treat his family to Nickburgers.
After about 10 minutes, my double cheeseburger showed up at the window (you could tell I was a Nick's virgin as everyone else - including women - were getting two, three or four burgers). I took a seat at one of the picnic tables and chomped into the double cheese Nickburger. It was moist, flavorful, juicy - all the great adjectives that go with the taste of a very good burger.
The double Nickburger didn't last long. It was very, very good. I wanted to get another one, but the line had now stretched 10 to 12 people deep, with a like number of people who were waiting for their burgers. I thought, "No, I'll just head down the road and come back some other day.
And I will be back. I need to eat in the new and improved Nick's at some point in the future. The trip between Fargo and Sioux Falls is long and boring. But a nice little short stop in Brookings to go to Nick's Hamburger Shop really breaks up the monotony.
Update #2 - A lot of things have happened at Nick's since I was last there about three years ago. First of all, they did get their renovation done and they are up and running in the new and improved burger joint. The front door has moved from the northeast corner to the southeast corner. There are new cabinets, counters and seating in Nick's Hamburger Shop, but they still serve the same old burgers - called the "Best in South Dakota" by USA Today in 2010.
I had an appointment with a dealer in Sioux Falls one afternoon recently and I called him up when I was about an hour outside of the city to let him know I was on time. He said, "Oh, man! I've been meaning to call you. I've got a couple of appointments outside of the office that popped up today and I won't be able to meet until after 5 p.m."
Since it was about 2:00 p.m. and I was coming up to the Brookings exit, I just decided to swing in and get a couple burgers from Nick's. There were only a couple three people in the place when I got there, it was well past the lunch rush. They still have their picnic tables with a large canopy tent in the courtyard next to Nick's. And even though it was a nice day, I wanted to sit inside.
I ordered two double cheeseburgers with everything - ketchup, mustard, raw onions and pickles. I sort of watched how the girl made the burgers. They keep the made burgers in a warm bin, then when they're ordered they take them and put them on a flat grill to warm them up before serving.
The burgers are served on wax paper - no plates, one ply napkins are available on the counter. It's very no frills. And they still don't have a fryer, so there's still no French fries at Nick's.
And the burgers were exactly has I remembered them - they aren't very big, so two double cheeseburgers are no problem even for the smallest of appetites. The burgers were slathered in mustard with a little bit of ketchup (come to think of it, I'm not certain if ketchup was on them at all). The onions were overly fresh and strong. They tasted excellent with the burger. The burgers, themselves, have a good flavor to them. They've been making them the same way for over 80 years at Nick's and I'm sure their grill is well-seasoned by the hundreds of thousands - no, more probably the MILLIONS - of burgers that have been cooked on it over the years. They are damn fine burgers.
In addition to getting named the best burger in South Dakota by USA Today and the renovation of the place, owner Dick Fergen was recently named the 2011 recipient of South Dakota's "Retailer of the Year". Fergen was lauded for his enthusiastic community support, as well as his overall positive and energetic outlook on not only his business, but for life, in general. There was a plaque prominently displayed on the wall at Nick's, along with a number of pictures and articles about the little burger joint over the years.
I haven't had many burgers in the state of South Dakota, but I have to say they burgers at Nick's Hamburger Shop are very good. If you ever find yourself in the Brookings area, it's worth a stop at Nick's. And not only for the good burgers, but for the history and nostalgia, all of which keeps people coming back year after year.