Before the drive through restaurants, there were the drive-ins. America’s first drive-in restaurant, Kirby’s Pig Stand, opened in Dallas, Texas in September of 1921. The Pig Stand was a hit with hungry drivers and quickly became a chain of 130 restaurants by 1934. Pig Stands were famous for their chicken-fried steak sandwiches, fried onion rings, milkshakes and their regional specialty, Texas toast.
Kirby’s Pig Stand
The term “car hop” evolved from the teenage boys dressed in white shirts with black bow ties who worked at the Pig Stands. When a car would pull up, they would hop onto the running board of the car to take the order. Eventually, these boys were replaced with teenage girls on roller skates who would bring food to your car and hook the tray over your partially rolled down window.
In 1923, the first A & W Root Beer Stand opened in Sacramento, California. They became famous for their homemade root beer which was served in frosty mugs. Owners Roy Allen and Frank Wright began franchising their drink and by 1960 they had 2000 A & W Stores.
As more people began to own cars, drive-in restaurants opened all over our country. World War II rationing of gasoline and food was hard on the drive-ins but many of them managed to survive. The basic formula was the same…young car hops who provided speedy service, good food, and the convenience of staying in your car. Parents could take their children dressed in pajamas to get a cold root beer and a burger and fries.
My mom told me recently, that her first summer job at age 14 was as a car hop at the Birch Beer Stand in Elkhart, Indiana. She said she made 65 cents an hour plus tips and it was great fun waiting on the families and older teenagers who came there to eat. I didn’t know what birch beer was and she said it was a carbonated soft drink similar to root beer but with more of a bitter taste. It’s made from the birch bark or birch sap of a birch tree. Some say the flavor is similar to teaberry.
The drive-in most dear to my heart from my childhood (other than Bonnie Doons if you read “Something Cool and Here’s the Scoop”) is the Simonton Lake Drive-In. This drive-in is about 10 minutes from the house I grew up in. It’s been in business for more than 50 years and when we were in Indiana recently for my son’s wedding, my husband and I stopped by for lunch.
It looked the same as I remembered and the food was just as good. They are famous for their homemade root beer served in a frosty mug. Because of the weather in the Midwest, they are open from March 15th through September 30th. As I sat there enjoying my lunch and my root beer, I remembered the many times I ate there as a kid in the backseat of my mom’s big red Buick with country music playing on the car radio.
If you remember the old t.v. show, Happy Days, which was on from 1974 to 1984, you will remember Arnold’s Drive-In as one of the two main sets for the show. Later, Arnold was bought out by Al and it became Al’s Drive-in. Happy Days was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Arnold’s Drive-In was based on an actual drive-in called the Milky Way Drive-In of Glendale, Wisconsin. The Milky Way is no longer in business, but there is a Kopp’s Frozen Custard Stand at the old location.
When my children were small, I used to take them to two different drive-ins in Michigan where we lived. One was the West Lake Drive-In on Portage Road in Portage. The drive-in is a landmark in the area and sits between Austin and West Lakes with car spaces overlooking West Lake. They are famous for their perch baskets, olive burgers, mushrooms, fries and onion rings, and we could sit and watch the ducks and activity on the lake while we ate our food. Some people would come by boat to eat there.
Photos by Galyn Barnum, Portage, Michigan
We also liked both of the Root Beer Stands in Kalamazoo. It was an annual ritual to watch for them to open and to go for the first time each season. Besides the great root beer, my kids liked their hot dogs and their popcorn in paper bags. Sometimes we would order a half gallon of root beer to take home with us. We were always sad when we saw on their sign that they would be closing for the season on October 31st.
Photo by Galyn Barnum, Portage, Michigan
While there are still a number of the old drive-ins around, most of our children are familiar with the Sonic Drive-Ins. The first Sonic Drive-In opened in the 1950’s in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The name, “Sonic” went with their slogan at the time, “Service with the Speed of Sound.” Today, there are almost 4000 locations across the United States. Sonic, which bills itself as “America’s Drive-In” even sells a gift card and has a fan club that you can join by signing up for a “Cruiser” account.
Photo by Galyn Barnum, Portage, Michigan
So, what are you having for dinner tonight? Aren’t you hungry for a burger and fries and a frosty mug of root beer?
Author’s note: I have no affiliation with Sonic Restaurants. I do however, have an affinity for their limeades.