The White Lady: Auckland's favourite late-night food trailer turns 75

By Leonard Powell of RNZ

If you've had any nights out in downtown Auckland, chances are you've stumbled upon The White Lady, and possibly even stained your shirt.

The fast food institution is celebrating its 75th birthday on Tuesday, having been serving up burgers, fries, toasties and milkshakes to late-night city slickers since 1948.

RNZ visited the truck just before 6pm on a drizzly night in Auckland, as the 12.5-metre trailer was being towed to the corner of Fort Lane and Commerce street for the night.

The White Lady burger truck is unmistakable, with its iconic red and white sign.

Co-owner Anna Washer was on hand to help her driver park the goliath. Moments later Anna greets the five staff - who waste no time getting prepped for the night.

Her husband Peter is the son of the late Bryan Washer, more commonly known as Pop, who started the business back in the late 40s.

Having been born into the White Lady business, Peter has been around the truck his entire life. He's proud that it's remained with the family since its inception.

He recalled the glory days, and one particular staffer named Wally from back in the 1970s.

"He was a hard case, and those days you gotta remember people enjoyed themselves ... in other words they smoked," laughed Peter.

"Wally used to smoke while he was cooking, and he'd get this long thing of ash hanging from his cigarette, and he always said to customers, 'don't worry, I won't charge you for it'."

Wally only worked on Saturdays in order to fund his passion for betting on horse racing, having struck a deal with his wife that he wouldn't use the household income on his crutch.

"They came to an agreement where he'd work down here, and he had his little transistor radio going and all his friends kind of hunched up listening to the races. Those were the days, those were lovely."

Before COVID shut down the truck for 67 nights, the only other time the White Lady failed to open was in the 1998 blackout, when power was out across the city.

Spend any amount of time speaking with Peter, and you'll hear no end of stories connected to the White Lady's long and colourful history, like the chefs hearing the boom when the Rainbow Warrior went down in 1985.

Peter was on board when the Queen Street riots broke out in 1984, and saw people smash into Walker and Hall jewellers.

"They had all the gold out and that went real quick, but it wasn't the rioters, it was the Friday late night shoppers! Women with their handbags, straight in there.

"We tried to do our citizenry thing by putting the silver and all that in our lettuce crates. You should have seen the glare the guy from Walker and Hall gave me in the morning!

"Frankly speaking, they would have been a lot happier with the insurance."

Peter's eyes twinkled as he thought back to one of his earliest memories, coercing pigeons into his father's wagon across the street with his brother.

"We'd get the blue peas and run a line across the road under my father's car. Every time a pigeon came through we'd just chuck it in the car. Father would come out and there'd be five pigeons in the car."

But behind all of the comedic stories is a family that has worked their tails off to feed Auckland for three-quarters of a century.

Max Washer, son of Peter and Anna, is now on board as the operations manager for the business, which has expanded to include a smaller remote truck, plus a shop on Karangahape Road.

He explained what it's like pulling a shift on the White Lady truck.

"The traditional White Lady is a night shift, 6pm till 4am. We're open 24 hours on the weekend so we have day shift staff plus night shift staff.

"It's a tough gig, but the right sort of person loves it. One of our guys here has been working for 40 years. I remember him as a kid, he used to teach me how to catch pigeons on the side of the road.

"I've worked with Eddie, everyone's worked with Eddie, and he's been our longest serving staff member."

Inside the truck with the 'all-rounder'

Later in the evening RNZ meets the chef Max is talking about: the man, the myth, the legend, Eddie Lee.

Now in his sixties, Eddie has been serving up burgers since his late twenties.

"I'm an all-rounder. If I work with a good team then I can be anywhere (in the line up)."

"This joint is an old and strong kind of business, and heaps of people know about it. They come from all walks of life, and all around the world."

As Eddie spoke about his job, a steady stream of late-night diners rolled up to place their orders.

Watching the burger veteran close up was a sight to behold, everything hitting the grill at the perfect time with maximum efficiency, never in a rush.

Along with being an all-rounder in the kitchen, Eddie is also in charge of towing the White Lady onto its site.

"It's as big as a bus, so it's kind of a scary thing to do. But after a while you just treat it as a car."

Yasmeen, who works alongside Eddie, has been on the truck for a decade.

"It's really hard for me to sleep during the day, so usually I get like three to four hours of sleep max. I love it, I get to meet a lot of people, that's the best part.

"There's some people who get really aggressive at times, so all we have to do is talk to them nicely, ask what they want, offer them help.

"It's not so hard once you are nice to them, they actually come around."

And as the truck kept pumping out burgers for the midnight rush, one final question for the man who has served thousands in his time. Did he ever dream about burgers?

Eddie laughed. "Sometimes I do."