Austin will lose the Frisco Shop on July 29. It’s more than a diner, it is a relic of the past. A place where, to this day, any walk of life can go eat a down-home meal, delivered by a kind server who has worked there for decades. Where children drink miniature mugs of root beer and maybe get some extra fries from the kitchen. Where parents dig into a belly-busting burger or chicken-fried steak — because, to be clear, the Frisco is not a place where anyone leaves hungry. The interior is too dark for social media-perfect photos, but the love and commitment to quality hasn’t faded one notch since it opened in 1953.
Sadly, rent hikes and a changing dining landscape mean it’s time for the Frisco to move on to the restaurant afterlife. And there’s much, much legacy to talk about during its last week in business.
The 65-year-old restaurant on Burnet Road is the final surviving member of the once-prosperous Night Hawk family of restaurants. At its peak in the 1960s, Night Hawk had seven locations across three cities (Austin, Houston, and San Antonio) and a bustling frozen dinner business. The Frisco was more casual than its steakhouse siblings, and thus was named after the Night Hawk’s much-loved burger.
The Night Hawk and the Frisco hold a critical place in Austin history: these were among the first restaurants to hire minorities and women as early as 1935. The restaurants desegregated in 1959, serving black customers years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it mandatory across the country.
Frequented by presidents, governors, football teams, and families, all of the restaurants had a fierce dedication to superb quality. After the closure announcement last week, diners have flooded the Frisco to reminisce, leading to unusually long waits and favorite dishes like pies selling out by the end of the day.
“I’ve enjoyed the last few days, going table to table and visiting with folks,” said R. Harry Akin, who currently owns the restaurant with his wife, Julia, and is the nephew of founder Harry Akin. “From time to time, I have difficulty keeping a straight face,” he continued. “It’s a pretty emotional time.”
The Man Behind It All
Entwined with the history of the Frisco is the charisma and progressiveness of its founder, Harry Akin. A Longview, Texas native born in 1903, Harry Akin graduated from the University of Texas and joined a traveling acting troupe. He returned to Austin during the severe job shortage of the Great Depression, so he decided to open the first Night Hawk at the corner of South Congress Avenue and Riverside Drive in 1932.
Hoover Alexander, whose first job was being a busboy at the Night Hawk in the 1970s, explained that Harry Akin retained his thespian roots: “The restaurant was his stage and he performed.” Alexander went on to management at the Night Hawk before opening essential Austin restaurant Hoover’s Cooking in Cherrywood.
The Night Hawk’s early success was partially due to its late hours. Harry Akin considered himself a “night bird,” giving the restaurant group its name.
“There’s nothing accidental about quality,” was Harry Akin’s motto from the beginning, and by all accounts, he lived and breathed this maxim. In order to ensure he had the best meat, he raised his own cattle outside of Marshall, Texas on Akin Farm. The original Night Hawk housed a butcher shop where he and his staff broke down animals and aged meat.
“He was an amazing perfectionist,” explained R. Harry Akin, who took over the restaurant group when his uncle Harry Akin got into politics and ran for city council. “He accepted no compromise in any area, whether it was dishwashing or food prep. He was a maniac really, and I think that’s why the business has maintained the level of quality that it has over the years.”
“He was like the general in an army,” said Alexander. “[The cooks were] standing at attention, he would come through and do line checks. He wanted to make sure the bun was toasted just right and golden — [he was] just really picky [with] attention to details.”
It was a drill that Frank Young remembered all too well. He started as a busboy at the Night Hawk in 1956, and eventually managed all the locations. There was a moment when he was cooking hamburgers during a busy lunch rush, throwing patties onto a loaded grill as fast as he could, when Akin walked by. Though people were waiting hungrily, Harry Akin made Young rake all the patties off and clean the grill, before re-cooking the burgers to his standards.
“He was a father figure to me,” explained Young. “He was a nice mannered man and he had a way of approaching people where you wouldn’t be afraid to approach him.”
No-Nonsense Racial Integration
Harry Akin was a pioneer for restaurant desegregation. In 1953, local paper Austin American called him “instrumental” in the push to allow black customers into the city’s biggest restaurants during a time when schools were still segregated.
Young was present in the staff meeting in 1959 where Akin announced plans for integrating the restaurant. “Night Hawk never really had a sign saying you couldn’t eat there,” said Young. “He was ahead of his time.” He recounted Harry Akin saying, “If you have any problem serving blacks, I want you to leave now because we will serve them and I cannot afford to get any complaints.”
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited him to Washington, D.C. to discuss the topic of restaurant desegregation. Harry Akin’s political aspirations grew as he served as the president of the National Restaurant Association, and was elected mayor of Austin in 1967. However, he only served one term — R. Harry Akin surmised that Harry Akin’s support of the 1968 Fair Housing Act (which protected against housing discrimination) was what led him to lose his re-election. “From the start of his business, he had been an equal-opportunity employer,” said Akin. “He evaluated people on the basis of merit.”
The Work Culture
Employees were fiercely loyal to the Night Hawk restaurants, which is still true of the Frisco today. In fact, when the Frisco announced its closure to the staff last month, all employees chose to remain on through the very end. R. Harry Akin reached out to friends like Alexander to help the staff transition into new jobs. Meanwhile, former employees flooded the restaurant to pay their respects.
“[It] was my favorite job and Mr. Harry Akin was the best man ever,” said Chris Mele, a former waitress who returned to the Frisco on Thursday for one last slice of pie.
“People really felt it was like a privilege and honor to work at the Night Hawk,” said Alexander, who was also having a burger at the restaurant on Thursday. “The older employees revered him.”
R. Harry Akin recalled that one employee, Elijah “Junior” Arnold, started at the restaurant when he was so young, he had to stand on a beverage carton to reach the counters. He retired 60 years later.
Another famed employee was C-Boy Parks, the namesake of South Congress music venue C-Boy’s Heart and Soul and a fixture on the Austin music scene. Parks was a Night Hawk chef and, according to Alexander, a “rascal” — he would stay out at all hours of the night, but always showed up to work promptly at 6 a.m. to prepare the biscuits. Today, Alexander’s own hiring policy at Hoover’s has been heavily influenced by Akin’s willingness to give people a second chance.
While the political progressiveness of the Night Hawk and the Frisco were revolutionary, what kept people around was the food: a menu of classic diner fare with a Southern bent. Both the Night Hawk and the Frisco were known for Top Chop’t Steaks, a ground sirloin steak Young claimed was invented to satisfy the older clientele with dentures. Alexander’s favorite dish during his time at the Night Hawk was the ribeye with a baked potato and a vegetable, though he waxed poetic about the Frisco’s biscuits (he’s considering hosting a biscuit-making demonstration at his own restaurant to keep the knowledge alive).
Young’s favorite dish was one of the most filling items on the Night Hawk menu: the Size Royal, made with one-and-a-half hamburger patties mixed with garlic and mustard powder, cooked in a pan and topped with cheese, pinto beans, and Western chili. “It was the number one item that sold when I worked [at the Night Hawk] by UT,” Young said. “The football players loved it because it would fill them up for the rest of the day,”
The Frisco originally opened so patrons looking to grab a burger could avoid the long lines for a full meal at the other Night Hawk restaurants. Under Young’s leadership, the Frisco added lunch and breakfast. Still, R. Harry Akin’s favorite dish is the namesake Frisco burger with onion rings. “We sell an astonishing quantity of onion rings,” he said. “I think they’re absolutely the best in Austin.”
The Night Hawk expanded with a frozen food brand in 1964, profits from which often kept the restaurant group afloat. Young remembers testing the recipes for months to make sure the quality was still there. In 1993, the frozen division was sold to a private investor, who continued the operations in Buda, Texas. After the Frisco closes, that company is all that will remain of the Night Hawk brand.
The Changing Times
Harry Akin passed away in 1976, and the Night Hawk faltered without its leader. His widow, Lela Jane Akin, ran the business in his stead, but the Night Hawk locations closed one by one. When R. Harry Akin bought the business in 1994 with its longtime manager Lawrence Baker, only the Frisco remained. But with burgeoning development on Burnet Road bringing other dining options to the neighborhood, the restaurant has struggled in recent years. “This climate is pretty tough and we’re facing some difficulties that are somewhat intimidating really,” he said.
“There’s more of an emphasis on a self-service and fast food now,” mused Akin. “There are more ways to get food. You can order from home. There are prepared meals [...] there are just more alternatives out there.”
He made the difficult decision to close the restaurant due to slowing business and labor shortages, a problem plaguing many Austin restaurants these days. He is not opposed to selling the business, but doesn’t have high hopes. What will become of the space, which the Frisco rented, is unknown.
“I hear endlessly from people who had their first date at the Night Hawk or who met their husband at the Night Hawk,” said Akin. “Everyone seems to recall some significant event in their life that involved the restaurant. That’s very heartwarming to hear. Our overriding feeling is one of appreciation for all the support that we’ve had from the people and from our employees over the years.”