A Good Day at Shirley May’s 

Iconic eatery near Lebanon, facing closure, gets reprieve; future hangs in balance

By Cory Frye
Lebanon Local
Thursday, June 3, 2021, was supposed to be it, the last day. After 31 years, Shirley May’s Restaurant & Catering, a longtime institution on Highway 20, halfway between Lebanon and Albany, was closing its doors.

PLATE-SIZED: A typical pancake at Shirley’s can leave little room for more.
Photo by Cory Frye

Proprietor Shirley Dixon had accepted that fate. So had her customers. So had we all, nibbling at our last bowl of chili, our last plate-sized pancake, in a festive if somber air.
But this is Shirley May’s, home to big breakfasts and, apparently, bigger miracles.
When reached by telephone Saturday morning, June 5, Dixon was ecstatic. She said that Linn County, which had shuttered the property over a required septic-system update, had on Friday given her an extension until the end of the month.
“I’ll tell you what: I feel a whole lot better,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it until yesterday. It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful. My customers are going to be so happy. I moped around here until I got the phone call yesterday and I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’”
All told, the place was closed for a total of one day before the reprieve. So, business resumed as usual at 7 a.m. Wednesday, June 9. The Teen Burger statue posted outside, an ever-faithful guardian, will beckon travelers and locals to a hearty meal for at least two more weeks. After June 30, when the overall property sale’s set to close, the restaurant’s future will be determined by a new owner. (That information is currently unavailable.)
“This small adjustment is permitting Shirley May’s to close out the month and for the new owner to signal his or her intent,” said Shane Sanderson, the county’s environmental and public health program manager, on Monday. “If they submit an engineered design and timeline to us for system repair, further discussion can happen on the topic of operations.
“The county’s goal is to have a safe, functioning wastewater system for all restaurants in the jurisdiction,” he added.
According to information provided by the Linn County Environmental Health Department, Bob and Kathy Graham, who for the last five-plus years had owned the six acres upon which Shirley May’s stands, applied for a review in March 2020 of its septic systems in regard to a proposed property division. A county inspection revealed that the restaurant’s system was failing.
The Grahams opted, the department reported, for a repair permit to replace it and signed a “Temporary Holding Tank Agreement” form, allowing the existing septic tank to be used as a holding tank until June 3, 2021. This allowed the restaurant to remain open during the installation of a new system.
Bob Graham said the cost of a new system was too prohibitive. So, after a year of this temporary workaround, he put the restaurant and its two residential structures on the market through Oregon Farm and Home Brokers, where they were reportedly sold within days.
“It’s quite a landmark,” Graham said. “Shirley’s been there forever. I love going there. I go there every morning if I’m not fishing. But we kept it going for a while, quite a while.”

May stops to talk with Cathy Wyatt and Barbara Houser.
Photo by Sarah Brown

‘I Gave People What They Wanted’ 
Dixon, of course, has kept it going for quite a while longer. The building itself precedes her, however, opening in its lifelong spot during the mid-20th century as Louie’s Dash-in, a restaurant and drive-through. (Its window remains intact, though festooned with decorative stickers and blocked by plastic- and paper-cup displays.)
Louie’s was a distant memory when Dixon encountered it as Rick’s Cafe in the late ’80s. She and her husband, then living in Crabtree (she resides in Albany today), became regulars, visiting every week.
At the time she was an agent for the Oregon Department of Revenue in Salem. But, she said, she sought something new.
Opportunity knocked one day when Di Asquith, who ran the cafe with her husband, Rick, asked Dixon if she knew how to prepare meatloaf. When Dixon answered in the affirmative, she found herself with a second job washing dishes while keeping Oregonians honest tax-wise.
After her husband suggested she quit the latter pursuit, she did just that. “I wanted to get away from the Department of Revenue,” she said, “and this was close.”
Opportunity soon resurfaced when Di Asquith offered, “You’re always here. Why don’t you buy the place?” Dixon considered the question for a month before deciding to take the plunge.
It was local. It was rewarding. The people were great. All told, she went from dishwasher to owner in less than a year. (The lifespan of Rick’s Café was almost as short, with the Asquiths leaving the business after roughly 18 months.)
On Tuesday, May 1, 1990, Dixon opened the newly christened Shirley May’s (her middle name), beginning her adventure in rather hectic fashion, facing a clientele accustomed to her as a dishwasher/waitress, not as the owner.
“I just felt it was something I could do,” she said. “I always felt I could do anything I could set my mind to, especially after working for the Department of Revenue. When I bought it, people were asking me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, guess.’”
She laughed and added, “I had never done anything on my own like that, so it was a lot different. I came into it with my eyes shut, but I’ll tell you what: They’re wide, wide open now. It’s been a good experience. In my old job, I collected people’s money and they didn’t like it. When I bought this, I still collected money, but I gave people what they wanted.”

Photo by Sarah Brown

A most familiar face
Few elements at the address predate Shirley May’s, but one is considerable, easily recognized and heavy, to boot: the ageless Teen Burger, which, from its roost overlooking a two-lane road, has seen plenty of excitement. It’s a welcome beacon in an otherwise rustic, unchanged landscape.
Weirdly, despite its natural roadside presence, Shirley May’s seems to materialize suddenly every time, its mascot beckoning beneath its sign.
Teen Burger began immortality as part of a four-character menagerie (with Papa, Mama and Baby Burger, the American nuclear family) introduced for the A&W Restaurants chain in 1963. Dixon said this particular figure greeted passersby at a long-gone Corvallis location.
No one recalls precisely when it moved to Highway 20, but it’s bravely withstood Oregon weather – hamburger in left hand, root beer in right – through the restaurant’s multiple owners and names. Under a fine buzzcut and permanent smile, it’s outlasted occasional thefts (Teen Burger always came home), at least one single-vehicle accident that knocked it from its perch, and even a 1990 case of mistaken identity, when a similar figure vanished from Hillsboro and KOIN-TV cameras descended upon Shirley May’s hoping to document a heroic rescue.
“He was not stolen,” Dixon assured an anxious press. “He belongs here.”
One could say the same about the restaurant Teen Burger’s watched over so faithfully since 1990.
Faces shout “Howdy!” upon entry. Conversations resume where they once left off. Everyone seems to know everyone else.
“We’ll miss you” floats in common farewell, as patrons share one last joke or anecdote with Dixon as they make way to either exit. The place may be small, but it’s always packed with lifetimes.
A steady stream of customers fills the interior’s eight counter seats and five tables; two are large enough to accommodate multiple parties – and they do, multiple times. Physical menus are scarce, but few visitors need one here, reciting favorite staples by heart.

Photo by Sarah Brown

A cook and dishwasher occupy a small kitchen opening into a larger space where Dixon – its namesake, its nucleus, its convivial heart and soul – moves endlessly, answering the phone, collecting orders, working the register, and pouring beverages under signs bearing such witticisms as “Deadline for all complaints was yesterday” and “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You get it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.”
The overall atmosphere, of course, is far more friendly. Country music purrs overhead: Tim McGraw’s “Down on the Farm,” The Mavericks’ “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” and others. Pleasant chatter swarms the dining room, which, with its vintage decorative faux wood paneling lined with depictions of lions, tigers, elephants and polar bears (“Every day here is a safari,” Dixon cracks by way of explanation), resembles a comfortably homey den – one that doesn’t take debit cards or American Express.
Dixon and her patrons engage in what must be decades-old banter by now, an abundance of familiar kidding, catching up and departing hugs. “Thank you for your loyalty,” she tells them as they leave. More faces then arrive, more stories, more laughter. A fresh wave of appetites rolls in. For now, at least, Teen Burger – and all he surveys – lives on.