Ruby Valenta wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how many hamburgers her husband, Fred, had hand-pattied and grilled over the years.
But considering Fred had been doing it routinely since the early 1960s — first at King’s Drive-Ins and then at Fred & Ruby’s at Parkway Lanes — until his retirement in April, hundreds of thousands would be a safe bet.
Maybe even millions.
“It would have been an interesting thing to keep track of,” Ruby said. “It would have been nice to know.”
Whatever the number, one thing’s for sure, he made a lot of Lincoln diners happy, so the news of his death this week really struck a chord. Fred died Monday, losing his battle against brain cancer. He was 78.
“Thank you, Fred, for bringing our special little burger joint to this community, but thank you more for bringing your special brand of humor, humbleness and kindness into the lives of so many customers, family members, friends and employees,” Kim Carlson, who co-owns Fred’s at Parkway with her husband, Kelly, wrote on the cafe’s Facebook page. “A more honorable man we would be hard-pressed to find.”
Following a stint in the Navy, Fred learned to cook burgers at Lincoln restaurateur Jim King’s enterprises, primarily at King’s Drive-In at 3935 South St. and Kingscrest Drive-In at 923 South St. Ruby worked part time for King “and (Fred) joined me on that. That started the whole thing off.”
King also operated a luncheonette in Parkway Lanes, a bowling center at 2555 S. 48th St. He turned it over to the Valentas in 1964. Fred sold the cafe in 2010, but continued to man the grill for the new owner. The Carlsons bought it in 2011 and renamed it Fred’s at Parkway in his honor.
“I asked him if he would continue working for us, and he said ‘Of course,’” Kim said.
Fred’s hamburgers were much like Fred himself: no-nonsense.
“The unique thing about Fred ... he wasn’t flamboyant or exaggerated,” Kim said. “There was nothing fancy about a Fred burger. To make it with mayo was about as exotic as it got. Fred used the best and freshest-quality meat and let the burger sell itself.”
To make the burgers, Ruby said Fred used an ice cream scoop to measure and his hands to mold them for the grill. He then lightly salted and peppered them while they cooked.
That was it.
“He liked cheese and ketchup,” Ruby said. “That’s how he liked his.”
Parkway also was known for Fred’s homemade soups. The menu featured chili and vegetarian soup daily and beef noodle and chicken noodle as specials.
“Fred worked day and night,” Ruby said. “He always felt if he wasn’t there, it wouldn’t go smoothly. He was always there.”
And for that, Lincoln diners are thankful — and full.
Memorials can be sent online to gofundme.com/fred-valenta-family-expenses.