For over 20 years I have written this column sitting at my desk in our restaurant’s business office. Today is different. I am sitting at a booth in the Ward’s hamburger restaurant across the street from my office.
I received a call earlier today that the owner and co-founder of Ward’s, Richard Ward, passed away.
Dick Ward was a Hattiesburg restaurant icon, and one half of a twin-brother team that impacted the culinary landscape of this town— and of South Mississippi— for more than 60 years.
Dick and his twin brother Ed opened a Frostop restaurant in Hattiesburg in 1957. Frostop was a regional chain, and a hamburger joint in the purest sense. They served chili-cheese burgers, chili-cheese dogs, fries, and root beer in frosted mugs. The Ward twins worked seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for the first 15 years their restaurant was open. Seriously, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for 15 straight years.
In the early 1980s Dick and his brother began opening Ward’s fast-food restaurants all across the south. I am writing this column in the first-ever Ward’s restaurant. It just seemed right that when I received the call about Dick’s passing, that I come over here. I had eaten lunch an hour earlier, but I ordered a Little One (a small chili-cheese burger), some fries, and a soft drink in a frosted mug in Dick’s honor. This is what my youth tasted like.
The Frostop was a Hattiesburg institution and the source of some of my greatest childhood restaurant memories. It was the newest concept in the restaurant business at the time. It offered no carhops (something the Ward brothers were told wouldn’t work in Hattiesburg) and walk up service with thousands of clean sparkling ceramic tiles and a giant 10-foot tall mug of root beer revolving on the roof.
The Frostop of Hattiesburg opened on a rainy December morning in 1957. My friend, Dickie McKenzie was their first customer. According to Dick Ward, McKenzie, the future judge, came in every day while taking a break from his paper route. I ate at the Frostop every day after kindergarten. I also used to skip class in high school and eat at the Frostop with whichever friend I could talk into skipping class with me. It would be hard to find anyone who lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi between 1957 and 1980 who never ate a meal at The Frostop.
The Frostop served homemade root beer tapped from kegs and orange drinks that were displayed in those big glass domed fountain top dispensers that shot the orange liquid up into the dome. I always opted for the orange soda. They also had a great jukebox. I am a fan of jukeboxes in restaurants. I believe it’s a sin to be in a restaurant or bar with a jukebox and not to play a song.
The Ward brothers were hard working men. If the Frostop was open for business, one of the two brothers— if not both— was there. When I decided to go into the restaurant business, the “Ward Standard” was an example given to me by a local businessman when I asked him what he thought I could do to make the restaurant I was about to open a success. “Work it day and night, like the Ward brothers” he said. “That is the nature of the beast.”
In May of 1978 the brothers opened their first Ward’s restaurant at Hardy Street and 40th Avenue. As I sit in a booth in that building now, I think back to all of the meals have been shared by so many people over the years. For the first 25 years they ate Lot-O-Burgers and Butter-Burgers with chili, cheese, and onions. Then the Ward’s began offering Little Ones and Big Ones, with chili, cheese and onions. For most of my life, I have had a Ward’s fix once or twice every month.
The Wards sold the Frostop in the early 1980s, and it closed a few years after that. The old building has been torn down, the lot has been cleared, and a coin-operated laundromat stands in that spot today. It makes me sad that Hattiesburgers under 35-years old never knew the Frostop on Hardy Street, and kids born in recent years probably never knew Dick or Ed Ward. Though the next generation of Ward’s— their daughters— are carrying on the legacy of their fathers. Maybe one day, some kid who is eating at Ward’s after kindergarten every day will tell the story of those two ladies and the impact they had on the community. I hope I’m be around to read it.
Some people make a town a better place without even trying. Dick and Ed Ward probably never thought in those terms. But they made a positive impact on me and most of the people I know.
May your soul be in peace forever, Dick Ward. You have certainly earned the rest.