DISCOVERY BAY — Navy sailors Wednesday plucked nearly $25,000 in cold, hard cash off the walls of one of Washington's most beloved roadside burger joints.
Handling the rumpled greenbacks, tacked up over the last five years by countless customers at Fat Smitty's along Highway 101, was a novel experience for some.
"I can't remember the last time I carried cash," said sailor Gwendelyn Ohrazda, as she snapped pictures of others removing and counting bills. "I kind of miss it."
Yet cash is still king at a restaurant famous for its roadside burgers, fries and onion rings. And the dollars left behind on the eclectic eatery's walls and ceiling are, each half-decade, donated to charity.
"We've gotta keep those dollar bills circulating," said Casey Carson, Fat Smitty's owner, who is donating the money to the Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society.
Not all of the money stays on the wall. Every now and then, a bill marked with unsavory language is removed by the staff. It's waved into the "bad bear" teddy-shaped jar, bound for its own charitable causes — in this case, $1,600 for the area's all-volunteer fire department.
"This is a family restaurant," Carson said.
It's a long-running tradition the restaurant began in 1985. Two men selling Caterpillar equipment were eating at its bar one day, and one asked if they could pin a buck to the ceiling with his business card, the legend goes. Their contribution was embraced by Carl "Fatty Smitty" Schmidt, a retired Marine and the eatery's owner and founder.
Money isn’t the only thing displayed on the restaurant's interiors. There are business cards. Old IDs from middle school kids. Military coins. Some right-wing bumper stickers. Save for the floor, no square inch of the place is uncovered.
Remaining an all-cash business in an increasingly cashless society has its drawbacks. Despite having an ATM, customers will walk out on occasion, Carson said. But most will pay — and leave a bill or two behind.
But some people can't help but try to get their hands on the cash for themselves. In November 2020, three men and a woman were arrested after breaking in. Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies caught up with the suspects, who had dollar bills hanging from their pockets, according to the Port Townsend Leader.
This year's donation was the first time Carson, a Marine veteran and retired Washington State Trooper, was on his own without both Schmidt and his wife Miyo, or "Mickey." The couple passed away in 2018.
Schmitt and Carson's father, Gary, served in the Marine Corps together. Later, they helped run Fatty Smitty's, one cooking in the morning and one the evening, Carson said. Carson took over the reins in 2009.
Sailors based at the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific, located at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, were on hand to help Wednesday to take down the bills.
"You guys hungry?" Carson asked the sailors as they came inside.
The restaurant saved up more than $26,000 in its last haul in 2017, donating it to a number of causes to support children, the local fire department and service members. In 2012, the restaurant swept off more than 10,000 $1 dollar bills, with proceeds then going to help build the Boy Scouts a new dining hall at nearby Camp Parsons, as well as a $3,000 donation to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
This year, the money's headed for the Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society, which each year covers millions of dollars in emergency expenses for service members. In Kitsap County alone, more than $600,000 was distributed.
Kathy Phillips, director of the relief society's Bangor office, said they saw five years ago in the local paper that Carson desired to give the next haul of bills to their charity. So they came to visit then.
"We were really surprised and grateful," she said.
Fat Smitty's famed wood-carved burger and other statues that surround the restaurant are the work of Terry Tessmer, a local resident and friend of the family who came to help Wednesday.
"I don't think there's anything unique as this," said Tessmer, who noted he hitchhiked Route 66 in the 1960s. "There's really nothing like it."
"Just a good classic American hamburger," Carson added.
Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military and Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshfarley.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: $25K comes off dollar-filled walls of beloved burger joint Fat Smitty's