Rush’s, Columbia’s homegrown fast-food chain, rather quietly recently marked its 75th year serving burgers, hot dogs, chicken, barbecue and ice cream to generations of hungry customers.
The company that started out as a single drive-in on Broad River Road in front of the family dairy farm now has nine locations and 400 employees.
“I’d say we’ve become a staple in people’s minds, where they know what we’ve got,” said Don Alcorn, Rush’s president and chief executive. “They know we don’t change menus with whatever the current fad of the day is.
“And that gives them almost a comfort – comfort food – in that they know they can still go to Rush’s and get that same (menu item) they got six months ago, or a year ago, and hopefully it’s even better than it was then.”
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A sign of that comfort came during the recent recession. As the economy stumbled starting in 2008, Alcorn said the drop in Rush’s sales was slow to take hold.
“I think that (consistency) gives us some loyalty to our customers,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve developed a strong, loyal fan. We love our customers. They love us. And if we don’t do something right, we know about it quickly.”
The Rush family started the business in 1940 in a little drive-in in St. Andrews in front of what then was the Rush family dairy farm. George Rush’s mother opened an ice cream stand at 2640 Broad River Road, in front of the diary, where the family made ice cream.
That wooden drive-in burned down, but in 1949, they built a Dairy Queen restaurant in that same location, before converting the restaurant in the late 1960’s to Rush’s, making the Broad River Road store its home restaurant.
“We’re in the quick service — hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, barbecue, ice cream – but we feel like that we’re getting maybe the higher end of that fast-food customer, because of our quality service, too,” Alcorn said. “We spend a lot money on labor for our service, and that gives us a little step ahead.”
Rush’s taps a market that Alcorn said approaches the fast-casual dining market characterized locally by restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s.
The average check at a Rush’s restaurant so far this year is $9.23, Alcorn said. Depending on the location, the average ticket ranges from $8.44 to $9.73, he said.
An Irmo native, Alcorn started at Rush’s as a part-time cashier in 1967, fresh out of Irmo High School. He worked in the restaurants during summers and holidays while he got a psychology degree from Newberry College.
“Most of our current restaurant managers came to us as hourly employees,” Alcorn said. “They got bit by the bug and those have turned out to be some of our better (personnel), because they have ‘been there.’ They understand the grassroots level of the business.”
To be successful in the fast-food restaurant business, you have to “have ketchup in your blood,” Alcorn said. “You either like it or you hate and it takes a special person to be able to like our industry. That’s how I got started.”
Alcorn, a board member of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, also said the fast-food industry offers numerous employment opportunities. Assistant managers and general managers at Rush’s earn yearly salaries ranging from $38,000 to $69,000, Alcorn said. Supervisor salaries range from $62,000 to $102,000 a year, he said.
Many of the restaurant’s hourly-paid workers have been with the company for 10 to 15 years, he said. “We pride ourselves on having a lot of those people in our employment,” Alcorn said. “Usually the turnover in the fast-food business is such that you don’t develop those people. Yes, it costs us more in the hourly wage, but also in the insurance packages that we’ve been providing, even before we had to. That experience is invaluable.”
Often, Alcorn said he is approached by people who want Rush’s to franchise its restaurants. While the company is looking at some more new locations around the Columbia area, don’t expect to ever see a Rush’s in Ohio or Michigan, he said.
“We haven’t really looked outside the Columbia area,” Alcorn said. “For us to go to another city would require a lot for us – and to be able to retain the quality controls and that sort of thing. We’re just not ready to bite that bullet yet. We’re Columbia people and we don’t anticipate going outside the area anytime soon.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398
A LEGACY OF RUSH’S IN THE COLUMBIA AREA
Broad River Road – opened in 1967
Decker Boulevard – 1980
Sunset Boulevard – 1983
Garner’s Ferry Road – 1986
Columbia Avenue, Lexington – 1987
Harbison Boulevard – 1989
Two Notch Road – 1990
West Dekalb, Camden – 2000
Rush’s at Target, Lexington – 2010