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Culinary Curiosities: Back When Carhops Were the Only Delivery Service



In the upper Midwest, summer does indeed have all too short a lease. Still, by the time autumn rolls around, most of us have eaten plenty of ice cream cones, mingled at many backyard barbecues and savored drinks on the patio. But, did you make time for the drive-in restaurant?  Not the drive-thru, but the drive-in. The place where you park your vehicle in a canopied bay, place your order via intercom, and watch while the carhop brings a tray full of burgers, fries and more that you can enjoy in the peace and comfort of your own car.

I highly recommend this trip down memory lane. But, to be honest, I’m not old enough to remember the first drive-in restaurant. Kirby’s Pig Stand, started by Jessie G. Kirby and Reuben W. Jackson, first opened in 1921, serving hungry motorists traveling the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Boasting “quick curb service,” the teenaged servers, known as “tray boys” would race out and jump on the vehicle’s running board to take the orders. Those speedy servers later became known as carhops. Kirby’s Pig Stand was most famous for its “pig sandwich,” but also dished up plenty of onion rings, chicken-fried steak and a little something called Texas toast. Soon the restaurant established chains in California, New York, Florida and across the country—anywhere that folks wanted “America’s Motor Lunch.” Sadly, Kirby’s Pig Stand no longer exists. After a long, slow decline and the eventual sale of all the chains, the original drive-in restaurant closed following bankruptcy in 2007.

But Kirby’s Pig Stand was only the first of many drive-in restaurants. The popularity of the drive-in grew right along with America’s love of cars. From 1920 to 1930, the number of cars on the road nearly tripled, from 8 million to 23 million. And when the resource rationing of World War II was over, people had more money in their pockets and more gas in the tank. A culture of car cruising, driving to see and be seen, contributed to the rise of the drive-in. Teenagers especially, who loved the freedom that a car offered, flocked to the drive-ins where they could socialize, grab a bite, and show off their customized wheels.

By 1950, 73 million cars were on the road. Drive-ins flourished, embracing bold or whimsical designs to attract customers. Architecture often featured unusual structures such as windmills, pagodas, and zeppelins. Some emphasized modern forms with sleek cylindrical or cube-like towers. Neon signs and bold colors grabbed motorist’s attention. And the roller skating carhops, dressed in uniforms that ranged from the clean-cut to the outlandish, brought food with grace and alacrity.

But the romance of the car began to fade and soon the drive-through window promised even more speed. The cache and power that cars once promised became more commonplace. People were less interested in spending time in their vehicles—they just wanted to get from one place to another. Drive-ins slowly fell out of favor in the ensuing decades. Some have indeed stood the test of time (Sonic burger or A&W Root Beer, anyone?). If you are lucky, you might have a mom-and-pop drive-in not too far from you (I love the Dari-ette in St. Paul and the Peppermint Twist in Delano) that offers a unique experience.

I do fear for the future of the drive-in. What with self-driving cars on the horizon and the development of server robots (getting a test run in Japan), I worry that soon we will travel, eat, and more, all without ever looking up from our phones. Jessie Kirby, founder of his namesake Pig Stand, said that the drive-in worked because people were too lazy to get out of their cars. But let’s hope we’re not too lazy to look up and stop at all. 

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