Perched above Pendleton near where Highway 11 meets Court Avenue, Hal’s Hamburgers has drawn people in for a half century in part because of its neon sign.

A local landmark, the sign has stood in front of Hal’s since it was built in 1952, catching the eyes of passersby, especially during the winter months when nights are darkest, owner Cindy Spiess said.

But over time the sign became more of a hassle than help, costing the restaurant money for repairs nearly every month.

“It was just becoming too costly for us to repair over and over,” Spiess said.

Spiess sought the help of YESCO, a national sign installation and repair company, for a long overdue upgrade. YESCO replicated the sign’s design using bendable light emitting diode — better known as LED — tubes on the cursive “Hal’s” and all caps “Hamburgers” lettering. The new-look LED has been up since early August.

Though neon signs still mark downtown Pendleton businesses, such as Rainbow Cafe, Prodigal Son Brewery, Hamley’s and soon-to-be-open Oregon Grain Growers, places such as Hal’s Hamburgers are altering that traditional aesthetic. Business owners and lighting experts are split on whether LED successfully replicates neon, but most agree that LED requires less expertise to install and maintain.

In the early 1990s, Japanese engineers Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura successfully created blue LEDs. Along with red and green diodes, their creation paved the way for white and brighter LED lights.

“The biggest problem we’ve had with LEDs is that they’re too bright,” said Jeff Young, YESCO’s chief marketing officer. “The great thing is that you can dim them. You can’t do that with neon.”

Young has also seen an increasing number of businesses opt for LED screens, which give them the freedom to engage customers with customizable messages.

Contrary to popular belief, neon and LED actually consume similar amounts of energy. Neon transformers run on high voltage, meaning they use fewer amps to do the same amount of work, according to Young.

For the older signs such as Hal’s, however, neon wiring systems are susceptible to frequent breakdowns. Spiess said they have wanted to replace the sign for years, but held off because they couldn’t find a company that was able to bend LED tubes and fit the letters.

“Technology finally caught up with us,” she said.

The project cost $14,000, Spiess said, though Hal’s wasn’t eligible for grant money because it is located outside of Pendleton’s downtown district. When Spiess drives by the restaurant now, she said the sign appears brighter than it did before the renovation.

With the correct setup and upkeep, however, neon signs remain the preferred choice for many businesses interested in a classic look. Ed Miltenberger, owner of Pendleton-based SignMen, said he’s serviced the Rainbow Cafe sign, located at 209 S. Main St., less than 10 times in his 37 years of work and has yet to repair the Prodigal Son sign at 230 S.E. Court Ave. since installing it in 2010.

Prodigal Son owner Tim Guenther said they didn’t consider many other sign options besides neon. He remembers seeing pictures of 1940s downtown Pendleton draped in neon that reminded him of the Las Vegas strip.

Since Prodigal Son is a few blocks from Main Street, Guenther said he wants people to know there’s more businesses down the street. The sign has helped accomplish that goal.

“We ask on comment cards, ‘how did you hear about us?’” Guenther said. “Tons of people say, ‘saw the sign.’”

Miltenberger believes neon signs offer a “traditional look that’s hard to come by.” He said LED signs lack the sharpness of neon, particularly the lettering. Still, Miltenberger, who estimates he’s sold $90,000 worth of LED signs in the last four years, thinks the industry is trending towards the newer technology.

“(LED) is a good light — don’t get me wrong — and it will have its run,” he said.

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Contact Will Denner at wdenner@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0809

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