You would be hard pressed to find a man more excited to head to work than Larry Ball. Forty-nine weeks out of the year he is plotting Washington’s most delicious scheme: how to build a bigger burger better. With less than a month to execute his vision, Larry, his wife Lois and son Jared know that time is of the essence.
Every September, before the gates ever open or a single ticket has been sold, Larry and his family will have spent days, weeks, and months preparing for their burger stand’s three-week run at the Washington State Fair. They hire and train dozens of cooks and cashiers, work with vendors to finalize orders and mentally prepare to man the busiest restaurant at the fairgrounds. It may sound like a lot, but it’s all for good reason: his famed Earthquakes Burgers, Cheesequakes and bricks of curly fries are an iconic part of the Washington State Fair experience.
Earthquakes Biggest Burgers celebrates its 25th year at the fair in 2017. What started as a plywood burger stand that was parked outside the grounds has evolved into one of the largest spaces at the venue and is located inside the fairground gates today. Larry first set up shop in 1992 in that modest plywood shack, and today his kitchen is a permanent fixture at the fairgrounds and as big as any modern fast food kitchen.
Like so many of its seasonal contemporaries, Earthquakes Biggest Burgers is famous for its monumentally big burgers. While many of the vendors claim to have the biggest burger around, at a glance it’s clear that Ball’s burgers have them beat. These beasts consist of a half pound of meat on a ten-inch bun piled high with cheese and onions that are grilled to perfection. Earthquakes’ patties are so big that Larry had to custom build his own burger press, a Sledgeomatic of sorts, to be able to flatten then properly. And his curly fries? A big batch of fries, which weighs about a pound per order, is enough to feed two and is made from fresh from potatoes cut and prepared just before you order them. Earthquakes Biggest Burgers is busy from the first hour the fair opens until it closes down, so you know without a doubt that your food is fresh and cooked to order.
Larry’s booth is equipped with ten fryers and four six-foot grills. Every year he makes more of his half-pound burgers than the year before. He has a big operation for such a limited run. “We move a lot of burgers,” Larry says with an impish grin. In 2017, he expects to sell more than 50,000 pounds of potatoes, 25,000 pounds of hamburger and over 45,000 burgers.
For a few of his employees, this is their first job ever. But for so many, working with Earthquakes Biggest Burgers is a tradition all its own. Some, like young George Gardenhier, travel from out of state to work at Earthquakes; this will be his third pilgrimage. Others, like Bob Shephard, have been a fixture at the burger stand for over 20 years.
It all started with the owner himself. Larry, a Puyallup native, began working at the state fair back when he was in grade school. His parents worked at Effie’s Restaurant at the fair while he was in grade school. Every season after that for 15 years he was employed as an usher. And somewhere along the line, during one fair or another, Larry got it in his head that he could make a better fair burger.
Inspired by the specialty foods available once a season like fried Snickers, Krusty Pups, cotton candy and—of course—big ol’ burgers, he struck out to do it bigger. Armed with phone books from one end of the west coast to the other, he began his search with the hunt for a butcher that could supply him with eight-inch patties. Then he perfected the burger press, assembled the equipment it takes to grill and fry, put together his stand, and the rest is history.
Some die-hard Earthquakes Biggest Burger fans remember Larry’s Puyallup restaurant of the same name. Located near the South Hill Mall, it was a classic burger joint complete with a jukebox, open-air kitchen and family friendly atmosphere. Open for 13 years, this fixed location drew a crowd of diners near and far. Earthquakes’s giant burgers—which once came in smaller sizes such as the Tremor, designed for a mere mortal’s digestive tract at a still-hefty quarter pound weight—have oft been compared to the likewise legendary Miner’s Burgers near Yakima. And that, Larry tells us, is just fine with him. “They make a damn good hamburger,” he says. “I’m happy to be compared to Miner’s anytime.”
If you ask Larry, he’s happy to tell you that some of best days of his life have been at the fair. He may work 16-hour days for three weeks on end, but he gets to do it side by side with his wife, Lois, his son, Jared, and a team of hard-working folks that are just as passionate about his iconic burgers as he is. He’s been here, in one capacity or another, nearly every year since he was a young man. And if his die-hard fans have anything to say about it, he always will be.
For so many fairgoers, this enormous fair food is a tradition that’s just as big a draw as any ride, game or concert. If you haven’t tried one of these off-the-Richter meals for yourself yet, hurry—you only have through September 24 to sample Earthquakes’ larger-than-life attractions. And if you’re already familiar with the magic of this seismic fare but haven’t had a chance to sink your teeth into one yet, maybe we’ll see you in line.
Earthquakes Biggest Burgers
Washington State Fair
110 9th Ave SW, Puyallup, WA 98371
Mon, Wed, Thurs – 10:30am – 9:30pm
Friday – 10:30am – 10:30pm
Saturday – 9:30am – 10:30pm
Sunday – 9:30am – 9:30pm