The grand old Tendermaid; Iconic Austin restaurant turns 80

Published 9:00 am Friday, August 3, 2018

It’s hard to imagine Austin without the Tendermaid.

With its iconic red sign advertising hamburgers and Pepsi and red stools lining the outside of the counter, the Tendermaid has been serving loose meat sandwiches to hungry Austin diners since Franklin Roosevelt’s second term.

With August marking 80 years in business, it is indeed Austin’s oldest and longest lasting dining establishment.

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Iowa natives Jerry and Mildred Thatcher founded the Tendermaid in 1938. They stood at intersections all over town to determine which was the busiest. At the time, the intersection of what is now Fourth Avenue and Second Street Northeast was the busiest, and that was where they built the restaurant.

Sara White looks over an order just after the Tendermaid opened late Thursday morning. The business is celebrating 80 years.

A contest was then held to name the restaurant with a $50 prize, a sizable sum in 1938, to be given to the individual that submitted the winning name. While the identity of whoever came up with the name “Tendermaid” is lost to history, that individual went home $50 richer.

Today, the Tendermaid is still running strong in its original building, though the roof and windows were changed.

“My mom and dad’s first date was at the Paramount Theatre, then they walked over here and had their first meal together,” said Gary White, who has co-owned the Tendermaid with his wife, Sara, for the past 21 years. “I’ve heard that hundreds of times. It’s a place where a lot of people have a lot of history.”

“There is so much reminiscing everyday,” Sara said. “There’s reminiscing about who was in the area, who remembers who and ‘my dad brought me in’ and ‘my grandfather brought me in.’ We still have people come who worked for the Thatcher family. It’s decades of families carrying on the tradition.”

Gary White works the front counter at the Tendermaid Thursday just after opening.

This weekend will be the 50-year reunion of the Austin High School Class of 1968. Sara said that a former employee attending the reunion asked them if he could come in and flip a hamburger.

The Tendermaid has had its share of publicity, being featured in several food publications as well as appearing in the music video for Austin singer Molly Kate Kestner’s song “Footprints.”

There is also the now infamous food challenge, which started a few years after the Whites took ownership.

“Our customers were always asking, ‘What’s the record? What’s the most someone has ever eaten?’” Sara said. “It started that way, and the first person ate six (burgers). We were just blown away. And it wasn’t with a malt or anything else, except maybe a pop. It evolved from that. You have to beat it by a burger and eat or drink everything the previous person ate or drank. Now we’re on several food competition’s website.”

Just after opening and the Tendermaid was already busy Thursday morning, just as it’s been for 80 years.

On July 21, 2016, the challenge record was shattered when professional eater Molly Schuyler ate 29 cheeseburgers, along with 84 oz. of water, a bag of chips and a malt, in 26 minutes. It is a record the Whites believe will never be broken.

But for many, the Tendermaid is about the homey, comforting atmosphere that accompanies your meal.

“We are so incredibly proud to carry on this legacy,” Sara said. “The Thatchers started something incredible here. When people step into the door, they’re just comfortable. They get to know the other customers and everybody starts chatting. It’s very rare that somebody isn’t nice in there. It’s like stepping back in time and you’re part of the family.”

“The joke here is that I don’t have to read the paper of watch the news because it just walks in off the street,” Gary said with a laugh. “I can bring my grandson in here and claim that’s the fourth generation of my family to sit in those stools. That is so unique and it’s one of those things that I am really proud of. The fact that this is 80 years old and has always been the Tendermaid is remarkable to me.”

“One of the things people say is the first thing they do when they come back to Austin is they grab lunch at the Tendermaid,” he added. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.”