COEUR d’ALENE — Steve Hudson was born into a downtown dynasty.
Hudson and his younger brother, Todd, are fourth-generation owners of Hudson’s Hamburgers on Sherman Avenue, which is far more than a funky little burger joint. Hudson’s is an institution that has been featured in newspapers across the country, and has been Coeur d’Alene’s heart and soul for 110 years. Year after year, it just builds on success almost to the point where it’s out of control.
The succession includes Hudson’s great-grandfather and founder Harley in 1907, his grandfather Howard, and father Roger, who retired from the busy summer season in 1996.
When he’s not competing in triathlons, skiing, biking or officiating Pac-12 Conference football games, Hudson, a 56-year-old father of two, is tending to his family’s legacy, which he plans to do for the rest of his life.
“I wish I could wrap my arms around it and hug it because it’s been so good to our family,” he said. “It’s just a cool place.”
Hudson was born in a hospital that once occupied the space that is now the parking lot of the Iron Horse restaurant. His first home was an apartment in the Blackwell House on Sherman.
While he was still a toddler, his parents found a house in the 1900 block of Ninth Street that was for sale by owners June and Jerry Orr. They bought the house, and 20 years later Hudson married the Orrs’ daughter, Julie.
“Small town, huh?” Hudson said, smiling.
Hudson said Coeur d’Alene was a young guy’s paradise in the 1960s, though not all of his memories are good ones. As a fifth-grader he was required on the last day of the school year to go down on windy days to the public beach to take swimming lessons.
“It was miserable, absolutely miserable. It was so cold,” he said. “But we weren’t allowed to go to the beach until we were certified. Until we showed Mom that card that we could survive the lake, we couldn’t go there.
“After that, we were at the lake all the time because it was a blast. We had more fun.”
He and Todd also spent summers at their grandfather’s summer home at Moscow Bay and “terrorized the lake” in Howard’s 10-foot aluminum boat.
Other than that, they pretty much had to toe the line.
“It was funny because you’d think you were getting away with something but sure as heck two days later your mom knew about it — eyes and ears everywhere,” he said. “We finally got tired of being in trouble.”
In junior high a classmate named Julie Orr caught his eye. He admired her from afar all the way through high school.
“I was too shy to talk to her,” he said. “I was terrible at dating. I hated it. I actually hated it.”
During the summer of his senior year in 1979 he saw his opportunity slipping away and asked her out. That fall Hudson enrolled at North Idaho College while Julie went to the University of Idaho at her parents' behest.
“They wanted to separate us for awhile,” he said. “It didn’t work too well because she was gone for two weeks and I asked her to marry me.”
They married at the end of their sophomore year and moved to Boise to finish college at Boise State University. She earned a degree in education and teaches at Dalton Elementary. He earned a general business degree with her help.
“She basically got me through college. She’d do a lot of my homework,” he said. “She’s really good at school and I’m just not.”
The same was somewhat true for Hudson in athletics at Coeur d’Alene High School. He describes himself as a mediocre athlete though he made the CHS football, basketball and track teams. Most importantly, he learned basics and strategy in basketball and football that would pay big dividends down the road.
Hudson began his involvement at the restaurant at a young age. He was a 13-year-old newspaper carrier when his grandfather died in 1974.
“I went to work. I don’t know why, but I went to work,” he said.
He quickly learned that working close-quarters in a family can be trying at times.
“Working with Dad was miserable. He’d get really wrapped up and offended when people asked for fries and shakes. My grandpa was really crotchety too. Someone would come in and ask for fries and he’d send them up the street and wouldn’t make them a hamburger. So my dad kind of inherited that.”
The temper tantrums by his father and grandfather were “just stupid. So I swore I would never do that,” Hudson said. “I mean all we’re doing is making hamburgers — making just hamburgers.”
Well, not just hamburgers, but sizzling fresh ground beef burgers grilled before your eyes with freshly sliced pickles and onions. People line up on Sherman. Try to get in the front door of Hudson’s in July or August. Just try.
“I tell people I wouldn’t wait an hour for a burger but they do,” said Hudson.
The reason for Hudson’s no-french-fry policy is practicality. The tiny kitchen has no room for a fryer. And milkshakes? It seems to be an aversion. Hudson’s was considering an expansion to the Seattle area but backed away partly when they realized they’d have to serve fries and shakes.
Hudson said working with the public has been a challenge and he’s somewhat adopted the attitude of his predecessors.
“People don’t hesitate to say what they’re thinking. So now I just say if they don’t like it, go somewhere else,” he said.
Opportunity presented itself unexpectedly for Hudson in 1979 when a local coach came into the restaurant and asked if he’d be interested in officiating. Hudson hesitated, but began at 18 years old with men’s league basketball then moved on to high school junior varsity and varsity. Then on to football.
Hudson officiated five Idaho basketball championships and five football championships. Then moved on to the Big Sky Conference.
In 1999, he got a call from the prestigious Pacific 10 Conference for football. He worked the USC/UCLA rivalry for three years.
“Those were thrills,” he said. “But probably the biggest thrill was doing Washington at Notre Dame. That was incredible.”
This year, he officiated the Pac-12 championship game between Washington and Colorado and also the Ohio State/Clemson national playoff game.
“It’s been quite a ride,” he said. “I actually have to pinch myself.”
Hudson hopes for seven more years of officiating. It’s physically demanding. Then he wants to get permanently back to where his heart is.
“I think I will always work there [at Hudson’s]. I just like going in and peeling onions or cleaning the floor or cleaning the toilets. That’s what I do,” he said.
And as long as he’s managing the place, nothing will change in the 600-square-foot, 17-stool lunch counter with a tiny grill but a big tradition. Not the cozy intimacy. Not the historic photos of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s steamboats or the mini museum to the Diamond Cup in the back room. And definitely not the burgers.
Just go early. And never ask for a milkshake or french fries.