Prince’s Hamburgers was a historic and memorable chain of restaurants in Houston, Texas. The idea for Princes’s Hamburgers came from George Douglas “Doug” Prince, Jr., in Dallas, Texas, in 1928. A hat salesman at that time, Prince visited the Texas State Fair and was interested in the food booths and their preparation methods. He devoted himself to improving the food and customer service. When the Great Depression began in 1929, Prince lost his job as a hat salesman and fell into the restaurant business full-time.
Prince established a small hamburger stand on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas in 1929. He ran the stand by himself and took orders, cooked food, and could be considered one of the first carhops in Dallas. Within a year, Prince looked for greater opportunity, and on a visit to Houston in 1934, he decided that city was the best location for his business. Enthralled with the business activity on Houston’s Main Street, Prince moved from Dallas to Houston and in 1935 opened his first-drive in an old Weber’s Root Beer stand at 4509 South Main. The contract said that the Weber name should remain for six months. After that time the “Prince’s Famous Hamburgers” name was launched in March 1936.
Doug Prince excelled as a promoter and named his business No. 10 to create the impression that the chain had already grown to include ten stores. He understood the value and effect of publicity on the bottom line of business and pursued it with a vengeance. Prince and the hamburger stands were a constant presence in the society columns and newspapers. Nothing about the Prince’s hamburger was ordinary or low key, including Prince himself.
The Prince’s hamburger was created from a recipe Doug Prince acquired from “Burger Master” at the State Fair in Dallas and involved frying burgers on a grill in seasonings and their own juices. The cooking of French fries was turned into an art at the drive-ins. Fried shrimp was one of the most popular items on the menu. On Fridays, the open trout sandwich—a breaded, fried fish fillet, served “opened faced” on a long bun with a side of fries—was ordered six and twelve at a time to feed entire families.
During the hamburger chain’s existence, the firm operated as many as nineteen drive-ins in total, including locations in Beaumont and San Antonio. Prince declared that only blood relatives could operate a Prince’s. As carhops became popular across the country, he staffed each drive-in with attractive carhops dressed in sequined uniforms similar to a band majorette. Prince’s is credited with helping to popularize the position, and in 1941 Prince’s carhop Jeanette Hall was crowned “America’s first Carhop Queen” and was pictured in Life magazine. In the 1940s and 1950s, as many as seventy-five young women vied for ten carhop jobs when a new drive-in opened.
The life of a Prince’s carhop was never dull, as described by former carhop, and later business manager, Elizabeth Flores. Flores, at age twenty-one, began her first job as a carhop in 1950, having married an American GI after World War II and settling in Houston from her native Germany. She recalled no formal training for a Princes’s carhop then, and she worked until 2 A.M. most nights. The pay was very low, and a good carhop made her wages in tips. Flores described the ordering system used by carhops to the kitchen. Lone Star beer was known as “twinkle”; Jax beer was called out as “Boy”; Pearl beer was known as “lady”; Falstaff was “Flag”; and a fountain drink was called “Shoot 1.” A “Suicide” was a fountain drink with every flavor in it. Muelbach beer was known as “Kick.” Flores said each carhop bought her own uniform at $75, no small amount in the 1950s, and had to keep it spotless.
During the World War II gas rationing effort, Doug Prince, ever the showman, created a promotional horse and buggy with a sign on the back reading, “Prince’s Hamburgers Hayburner,” which paraded up and down Main Street. In 1946, following the war, Prince had an airplane land on Main Street and taxi up to order burgers. It made headlines in all three Houston newspapers. Such stunts were necessary to keep the Prince’s name above the competition, with such names as Bill Williams, Sivil’s, A&W Root Beer, James Coney Island, Stuarts’s Drive In, Pig Stand, and later McDonalds all battling for the hamburger dollar.
Perhaps the greatest promotion of all for Doug Prince occurred in the late 1940s when the “King of Hamburgers” purchased a 100-foot yacht near the Gulf of Mexico and hauled it twenty-five miles inland to create a restaurant at the end of Main Street. No such stunt had been ever attempted, and the restaurant, appropriately named Yacht Hamburgers, made Prince’s the topic of everyone’s conversation in Houston. Doug Prince drove a white Cadillac with “Prince’s” lettered on the side and a bumper sticker that read, “Who Woulda Thought It, A Hamburger Bought It.”
Prince’s thrived in Houston, and drive-ins opened in all parts of town, such as on Cullen Boulevard near the University of Houston, and near many high schools. The flagship restaurant, and most elaborate, was located at 8101 Main Street at Old Spanish Trail. Celebrities from the nearby Shamrock Hotel would come for the onion rings and give autographs. According to carhop Elizabeth Flores, in 1954 Elvis Presley motored in after a concert at the Paladium on November 25 to strum a tune to the fans and carhops.
Doug Prince’s family was also involved in his hamburger empire. His sons Douglas “Buck” Prince and Charles Prince were the heirs to the throne of fast food fame in Houston. Both started working in the hamburger stands in their early teens and sliced buns and cleaned trays. As the brothers got a little older, they advanced to cook, and finally at the age of eighteen were old enough to work up front at the soda fountain. Many valuable business lessons were learned in the process.
When Doug Prince died in 1966, both brothers and a sister assumed leadership of Prince’s Hamburgers. Throughout the next two decades, the business prospered, but by the late 1980s many drive-ins had closed due to the poor economy. By that time Main Street was not bustling anymore, and several businesses were boarded up. By 1990 only the drive-in at 4509 S. Main Street, managed by Elizabeth Flores, was still operating. Flores partnered with meat supplier John Brousssard through 1990 until the last Prince’s Hamburgers in Houston closed in December 1990. Brousssard brought back Prince’s Hamburgers as a diner concept on October 31, 1993, on the Katy Freeway and opened several other restaurants around town. The remaining restaurants operated until they were forced to close in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.