It was serendipity, pure and simple, when George and Versa Boyington invented the Pronto Pup, that tasty and toasty hot dog on a stick that revolutionized America's fast-food industry and started the franchise craze.
It was back in the late 1930s on an Oregon beach about 60 miles south of here when the planets were in perfect alignment for the birth of Pronto Pups and the merchandising magic that followed.
Webster's dictionary says serendipity means finding valuable or agreeable things by accident, and that's exactly what happened that Labor Day weekend, nearly 70 years ago on the northern Oregon coast.
The couple set up their hotdog stand on Rockaway Beach - either in 1938 or '39 - and waited in vain for the holiday multitudes to buy their wares. But no matter how much they counted on those customers, the weather didn't cooperate.
It turned cold and foggy and then it started raining, pouring down in buckets, spoiling everything. Their backs to the wall, that was when the Boyingtons used their noodles and made the best of a bad situation.
Friends who knew them later, here on the Peninsula, remember Versa and George as people "who wanted to climb the mountain" - and they pooled their talents that day at Rockaway to solve their immediate problem.
Faced with a virtual do-or-go-broke dilemma, they turned one of those "eureka moments" into a profitable business featuring a food item with a catchy name. They called them Pronto Pups. It was serendipity for sure, combined with old-fashioned creativity.
The Boyingtons' son Baxter, who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., tells the story:
"Sitting on the beach feeding soggy hotdog buns to the seagulls, my Dad asks himself: 'Why not cook the bun as it is needed?' He got up off the beach, found a way to make a dry batter mix, created the product - a classic American food - promoted it nationally and made a fortune for himself and others ..."
The Pups are plump and tasty hotdogs on a stick, coated with the special batter and deep-fried to a golden brown. Most of us have sampled and savored Pronto Pups at carnivals, county fairs and even at main street vendors here in Long Beach. An off-brand version is commonly known to the uninitiated as corndogs.
When they invented Pronto Pups, the Boyingtons were on the beach all right, and they missed our Peninsula beaches by only 55 or 60 miles to the south as the crow flies. The couple eventually moved here to the Peninsula, but more about that later.
When it rained that day on Rockaway Beach, it kept the crowds away, spoiled the Boyingtons' mood, their son said, and what was worse, it spoiled the hotdog buns, too, thoroughly soaked them and made them mushy. You could save the hotdogs by freezing, but what do you do with a bunch of mushy hotdog buns? Not much except feed the seagulls, as George and Versa found out - but they had a better idea.
They eventually figured that by skewering the hotdogs lengthwise with a pointed wooden stick, coating them with a tasty batter supplied by Centennial Mills and then deep frying the dogs, they dispensed with the buns and presto, they had Pronto Pups. The couple copyrighted the name Pronto Pup before they started selling the idea, the batter recipe and the franchise rights to merchants to use the name and the product.
Boyington hired an internationally known artist and designer, Amado Gonzalez, to create colorful shop exteriors and displays for the Pronto Pup shops along the highways.
Pronto Pups soon caught on with national trade magazines, including the June 1948, issue of "Drive-Inn Restaurant and Highway Cafe Magazine," which had this to say about the displays:
"Combining red, green, chartreuse and yellow with black and white, Gonzalez injected into Pronto Pup merchandizing aids all the gaiety and brilliance of fiesta-time in his native Mexico.
"Since 1941 when George M. Boyington of Portland perfected Pronto Pups, dealers in the appetite tempting sandwich on-a-stick have sprung up near and far.
"To tie each location into the national program it was decided that all shop fronts must look alike, insofar as standardization of color scheme, trademark and window showmanship were possible."
The company provided its dealers, at cost, with kits of copyrighted advertising aids, including large window decals, signs, Pronto Pup trademarks and a "how-to-do-it" guide for retailers. Boyington also stressed the importance of shop cleanliness and top-quality wieners, batter and cooking oil.
"First quality ingredients and meticulous care in preparation and serving are the sound and only safe foundations on which any business permanently succeeds," Boyington was quoted in a trade magazine story.
Is it any wonder that Boyington's son Baxter says his dad was an idea man and showman, salesman, promoter and storyteller supreme? It's not surprising that Baxter Boyington, director of sales for the San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau in California, shares some of his father's talents. As Baxter continues the story:
"My dad was a natural showman, and showmanship was an important element in getting Pronto Pups known to the public," Baxter said. "Dad insisted that his franchise people wear white jackets and chefs hats while preparing Pronto Pups, right out front so the customers could watch."
Baxter said that was part of the appeal of Pronto Pups, because the customers could see them being prepared and deep-fried before shelling out their two bits. That's what the Pups cost in the 1950s - just 25 cents - up from 15 cents in the late' 40s.
Boyington came up with a catchy slogan - "the wiener dun in the bun" - to help sell Pronto Pups, a slogan that would have been copyrighted today but wasn't back then.
His son Baxter grew up in the midst of the Pronto Pup story, and he has preserved much of the information, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs and promotional display material, combined with his own memories, to keep the Pronto Pup saga alive.
Baxter' s mother had Oregon roots while his father was a Midwesterner drawn to the Northwest. The couple met in Salem, Oregon, a short distance from the community of Silverton where Versa grew up, and near where her great-grandparents had homesteaded.
Baxter has discovered credible evidence of a genetic link, through a Wisconsin connection, between his dad, George Boyington, and the famed World War II Marine aviator, Col. (Ret.) Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, renowned fighter ace in the South Pacific and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After the war Pappy Boyington wrote about his experiences and those of his fellow airmen in the book "Baa Baa Black Sheep" - based on the exploits of the famed Flying Tigers Boyington flew with and, later, Col. Boyington' s Black Sheep squadron of Corsair fighter planes of the Marines. The group's Black Sheep nickname came from the fliers' reputation of sometimes ignoring rules and regulations. Later a long-running television series based on the book brought Pappy Boyington's exploits home to American TV viewers.
Getting back to Pronto Pups, Baxter Boyington has accumulated a thick scrapbook of information and photographs of his father's business in the 1940s, '50s and beyond. After coming up with the Pronto Pup idea, his father went to the Centennial Mills people for help in concocting a dry batter - the "secret recipe" - to mix with water. After testing at a Portland trade show, the Pronto Pup express soon was on the road.
Baxter remembers his father saying that Pronto Pups were selling so fast at the trade show that their booth stopped serving soft drinks and sodas. It was no ordinary trade show. It was the first-class Pacific International Livestock Exposition, then a big draw in Portland, where vendors sold more than 15,000 Pronto Pups to about 20 percent of those attending.
Besides the original Pronto Pup invention, George Boyington also had a hand in creating and promoting early fast food and drive-in food service outlets. He also developed the first pre-fabricated metal drive-in building for food service so common today. Baxter says Pronto Pups and Dairy Queen were the first two franchise food businesses to catch on in America.
After incorporating in the early 1940s and touring many parts of the country signing up Pronto Pup vendors and franchises, George decided it was time to bring in other investors. As the Pronto Pup business expanded after World War II, the Boyingtons signed up new backers, including members of the Sulmonetti family of Portland. Early in he 1950s, Boyington sold his controlling interest in the Pronto Pup enterprise to others, including brothers Alex and Alfred Sulmonetti. Control of the business remains with descendents of that family today.
The current Pronto Pup major domo is David J. Sulmonetti, son of Alex and nephew of Alfred. Working from a small office in southwest Portland, surrounded by file cabinets filled with Pronto Pup memorabilia and memories, Sulmonetti markets the packaged "secret ingredient" flour, which is the key Pronto Pup item, wooden skewer sticks, deep fat fryers and other items to customers around the country, keeping the Pronto Pup mystic alive.
His longtime customers include concessionaires at state and county fairs, local festivals, rodeos, amusement parks, carnivals and similar shows.
David also has worked the other side, manning Pronto Pup booths at Oregon fairs and shows, hawking tasty Pups to the crowds and learning the business from the ground up. He also sells packaged flour to customers from his Pronto Pup Web site on the Internet.
Sulmonetti says some of his major clients, including large state fairs in Minnesota and Tennessee, have been Pronto Pup customers for decades. Some of those customers date from the beginning, not long after George Boyington fed those soggy hotdog buns to the seagulls on Rockaway Beach.
Jump ahead a few years, after the Pronto Pup franchise business had been sold to close out a whirlwind success story for the Boyingtons. After living several years in a Portland suburb, George and Versa moved to the Long Beach Peninsula in the early 1970s to begin a new phase in their life. By this time George was in failing health, suffering from emphysema and housebound much of the time, although a friend remembers George walking around his yard in Ilwaco "with a little pet bird on his shoulder."
That friend is Theresa Potter of Seaview, who with her late husband, Darrell, became close friends with George and Versa. Darrell, who died in Seaview in May, 2000, and still remembered by local fishermen, was a veteran commercial skipper who captained and crewed many fishing boats in Oregon and California, some of which were based in Ilwaco.
Theresa, who lives in Seaview, and a friend of hers, Lula Robison of Long Beach, are among the few surviving local residents who still remember the Boyingtons.
"Versa and George were very good friends to have," Theresa said. "They were true blue and we will always remember them."
Theresa says the Boyingtons made friends easily and it wasn't long
before Versa was employed by the Kaskco Fish Company in Ilwaco. She didn't know much about fish but knew her away around a business office. Eventually she advanced to office manager and played a major role in the continuing management of the company.
Theresa says Versa got along fine with most of the fishermen but "knew how to handle the cantankerous ones and keep them in their place" while she ran the business end of the fish company.
When she started working there, friends said Versa Boyington didn't know a "green crab" from a rockfish, but she soon caught on. Eventually a fire destroyed part of the Kaskco business, which later was acquired by the Portland Fish Company.
Theresa Potter said that after the fire, Versa' s job was to straighten out the company's books and salvage what she could, since some of the records had been damaged in the fire. The Sumise Seafoods Company now is located in the old Kaskco building in Ilwaco.
Versa Boyington also took part in community activities and served a term on the Ilwaco Port Commission.
A Portland man and former Peninsula resident who spent much of his earlier life on the ocean as a fishing boat crewman with a local skipper was a close friend of the Boyingtons and Theresa and Darrell Potter in the Ilwaco area. The Portlander is Joel LaFollette, who crewed for Potter on commercial boats based in Ilwaco and other ports.
"1 always felt that if anybody could get our boat back to port if we had engine trouble, bad weather or whatever, Darrell Potter was the guy," LaFollette said.
Turned out he was right. Potter always got him safely back to port, and LaFollette now is well-traveled fishing guide with a Portland-based outfitter. He has cherished memories of the times he spent in Ilwaco with the Boyingtons and Potters.
"As a young man from Portland, living on the Peninsula away from my family, I was very lucky to have people like the Boyingtons and the Potters as good friends to keep me on the straight and narrow," LaFollette said. "Versa sort of adopted me as a surrogate mother."
LaFollette said Versa Boyington was firm in her beliefs, "1 don't think she ever lost an argument." He recalled a trip he made with her to Astoria to buy a car, "she got everything she wanted from that poor salesman, whose head must still be spinning. 1 learned a lot that day about how to buy a car," LaFollette said.
In a roundabout way LaFollette is responsible for this story appearing in the Chinook Observer. 1 knew him as a friend and fishing guide, and occasionally dropped in the shop where he worked, across the street from the automotive garage where 1 have my car serviced, to talk fishing.
One day 1 happened to mention that we had a beach house in Seaview and that 1 occasionally wrote feature stories for the Observer. His Ilwaco connection buzzed right away. LaFollette told me about the Boyingtons and Potters, the Pronto Pups and his experiences in Ilwaco, and figured 1 might be interested. 1 certainly was.
"1 think I've got a story for you," LaFollette had said that day, going on to relate details of the Pronto Pup yarn and telling how the couple who invented the Pups later lived and prospered here on the Peninsula. One thing led to another, 1 got in touch with their son Baxter Boyington in California for more information, and the story began to take shape.
George Boyington, the original Pronto Pup man, died in Ilwaco in 1979. Versa eventually remarried, and when her second husband, charter captain Wally Goodwin, died she moved to Tempe, Arizona, where she died in 1993. Baxter recalls his mother telling him about a charter trip in 1980 when Versa was helping out as a deck hand on Goodwin's boat, the White Dol-fin, and they witnessed the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens from the deck of the charter boat off the Peninsula coast.