TRAVERSE CITY — The hustling entrepreneur behind one of Traverse City’s iconic restaurants died on Saturday.
Don L. Shaff, who owned Don’s Drive-In from 1960-80, was 86. Don’s is known for its 1950s decor, drive-in stalls and retro car on the sign with a blinking turn signal.
“He was always wanting to help anyone that he could,” his widow Erna Shaff said of her husband of 64 years. “He never raised prices because he worried the families couldn’t afford to eat.”
Bob Wilson bought the restaurant at 2030 U.S. 31 North from Shaff in 1980 and owned it for 37 years before selling to current owner Mike Maddasion in June of 2017.
Wilson recalled Shaff stayed at Baker’s Acres Motel and Cottages the first year he owned the restaurant. If he wasn’t on site, Wilson said he would see a car pull into Don’s and run across the street to wait on the customer.
“That was entrepreneurship at its best,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he stopped in at Don’s on an Easter Sunday as a customer and Shaff jumped behind the grill to make him a hamburger. Shaff asked Wilson how he wanted it cooked and what he wanted on it.
Wilson responded that he wanted it medium rare with nothing on it, noting a good burger doesn’t need to have any condiments.
That’s exactly how it was.
“The rest is history,” Wilson said. “I ended up buying the place from him.”
Erna Shaff said it was a difficult decision to sell Don’s after 20 years. She said one of Don’s favorite expressions was, “Come again, and bring a friend.”
“It was like getting rid of a child,” she said. “He loved it.”
According to his obituary, Shaff doubled the size of the existing restaurant after he purchased it in 1960. Shaff also added curb service “365 days a year, no matter what the temperature was outside.”
Wilson said he added real milkshakes — named the best in Michigan in 2019 by TheDailyMeal.com in an article published in USA Today — in the early 1980s and drive-in stalls a few years later.
“It gave me an opportunity to think I could do better,” Wilson said. “The one thing he had was a good product. What he served in his hamburger was a good product.
“It (the milkshakes and drive-in stalls) was a good compliment to what he already had.”
Shaff was born in Traverse City on Dec. 7, 1933. According to his obituary, he “spent his youth in the family home on West Grand Traverse Bay,” currently the site of West Bay Beach, a Delamar Resort.
The Traverse City High School graduate married Erna in 1956 while serving as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Pickaway.
In addition to serving customers at Don’s, Shaff also designed and built miniature golf courses in Michigan and one in Canada.
“He called it mountain golf,” Erna Shaff said. “He built it up with waterfalls and stuff.”
One of the mini golf courses he built was Crystal Falls Mini Golf in Benzonia. Crystal Falls was eventually sold to one of his grandsons, who still runs it. Above the door is a familiar saying: “Come again and bring a friend.”
Shaff is survived by his wife, daughter Laura Carlton, and sons Bryan and Bradley Shaff. He also is survived by eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
Editor's Note: The online version has been updated to correct a name misspelling.