What's The Real Story Behind Dan's And Fran's Hamburgers?
When it comes to local businesses, Austinites like to have ownership over the story: How it got started, drama between original business partners, the history and evolution of its roots.
And, of course, gossip.
Caleb Jones experienced this phenomenon almost immediately after moving to Austin nine years ago. He had gone out to grab a burger with a friend at Dan’s Hamburgers.
“As we were leaving he said, 'Well, you know the story about Dan and Fran’s right? And I said, 'Well, no, of course I don’t; I just moved here,’” Jones says. “And he proceeded to tell me some story about a Dan and Fran who were married, they got divorced, and then there were Dan’s and Fran’s now.”
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For almost 20 years, Dan's was a staple. But after the divorce, some restaurants became Fran's. That's when a common narrative emerged.
“I kind of pictured all this drama," Jones says. "Maybe there was this burger empire of this family and ... something had gone wrong and they got divorced and then there was Dan and Fran’s."
Was there a custody battle over the restaurants? Was there bad blood because they became competitors?
"I kind of got kind of curious and wanted to know if it was as epic as I thought,” Jones says.
Rather than relying on assumptions, though, he wrote into our ATXplained project looking for answers.
First Comes Love, Then Come Hamburgers
First off, Dan and Fran are real people. Daniel Ignatius Junk and Frances Maldonado met in 1959. Dan came in to eat at a restaurant Frances was working at on South Congress, and this burger love story began.
Dan and Fran got married and had seven kids.
In 1973, they decided to open their own restaurant.
Ed Terrazas, the couple's second oldest child, says they planned to call it Junk’s, since it would be a family business. But the cost of five letters for the sign was a little too expensive.
“He didn’t have enough for that extra letter, so he went with Dan’s,” Terrazas says.
Frances was his business partner and all the kids helped out.
“We all worked in the store when we were younger, cleaning tables, and I worked in the kitchen and when I was able to reach the register I could cashier,” says daughter Katie Congdon, the current president and CEO of Dan’s.
All the Junk kids worked at Dan’s restaurants through high school and college; some of them made it a career.
By 1990, Dan’s was an established restaurant with multiple locations: on Airport, North Lamar, Manchaca. The Junk kids were adults.
It was that year that Dan and Fran decided to divorce.
Who Gets The Cheeseburgers?
Daughter Mary Bialaszewski says there wasn’t one specific reason why they divorced.
“It was time for them to kinda go their own ways,” she says. “So my mom had her stores and he had his.”
That’s right, part of the divorce settlement was splitting up the restaurants. Fran re-named her restaurants after herself and served the same food, with the same recipes, in the same way.
That's when hamburger lovers in Austin began gossiping.
But Congdon says it wasn't dramatic.
“People have their own stories and their own speculation, but it was really nothing other than – yes, they did get divorced," she says, "but they were able to sit down, have a meal together.”
Dan and Fran didn’t fight over the restaurants. They used the same vendors and recipes. Tarrazas says Dan was a little upset that Fran, who went by Frances, decided to call her restaurants Fran’s and that she used red and white signs so they’d look like Dan’s. Later he admitted it was a good move, though.
There wasn’t animosity among the kids about which parent they worked for. The kids stayed with the restaurants where they already worked. Congdon was a leader at Dan’s, so she stayed there.
Dan and Fran might have been competitors, but they stayed close friends. Congdon says that really confused people.
“They would really freak out when after my mom and dad divorced if they would see them eating dinner at a movie,” she says. “Because they got along great after they were divorced.”
The seven kids had kids of their own, so the family is huge. Congdon says they still celebrated holidays together post-divorce. One year, they held Thanksgiving at a Dan's restaurant – it didn’t matter that some of the family worked for, or were, Fran.
“We did have Thanksgiving one year because we didn’t have enough room,” Congdon says. “We were closed, but we cooked our meal up there. But not hamburgers, no.”
'We Have The Best Customers In Austin'
Dan died in 1998, and Fran is now 85. She worked up until a few years ago, when the lease on her last restaurant was up. Now, there are only Dan’s locations, but they are neighborhood staples and have devoted regulars.
Sharmane and Stan Cross have been going to Dan's since they moved to Austin in 1987. These days, they schedule Stan’s doctor’s appointments in the morning so they can eat breakfast at the restaurant afterward. Besides the food, Sharmane says she also loves the staff at Dan’s and brings up one particular waitress.
“At one point in time Stan’s kidneys failed," she says. "[The waitress] was very careful about what he ordered and she checked out how much salt was in his biscuits and gravy, so it would be kidney-friendly.”
The divorce didn’t make any of the kids waver in their dedication to working for the family business. Of the six Junk kids still living, four work full time for the company.
Many employees have been there for years. All the kids who work for the business prefer to be on the floor talking to customers or in the kitchen with their employees.
Terrazas, a manager at the North Lamar location, says he loves coming to work and seeing how his restaurant is a special destination for so many customers.
“We had three different people have birthdays today and they all got the song, 'Happy Birthday' sang to them,” he says. “The whole store clapped for them. You know it happens all the time.”
Jones, like many other Austinites, expected a juicy story behind the divorce. But it was the opposite.
The divorce didn’t diminish the Junk family’s impact on Austin; it expanded it. Dan’s Hamburgers wouldn’t exist if two people hadn’t fallen in love. It took both of them to build the business while raising a family. And that family is the real love story. Dan and Fran’s marriage lasted 30 years, and then it was over. But the seven kids, four restaurants and countless happy customers created a legacy that spreads deeper than the confines of a marriage.
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Nowadays, Congdon says, the relationship that defines the restaurants most is between the staff and the patrons.
“We have the best customers in Austin,” she says. “They are very loyal and they tell us what they think, and they tell us what they like and what they don’t like. We know where we stand with our customers.”
Got a tip? Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @ClaireMcInerny.
Editor's note: A photo of a recent Dan's location in Buda has been replaced with a photo of a Dan's restaurant from the 1970s.