• Lawrence Herzog

Remembering the drive-in restaurant

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

Originally published February 21, 2008

In these days of drive through fast food, it's perhaps a little difficult to imagine driving up to a restaurant, being served right in your car and dining off the dashboard. But that's how thousands of Edmontonians ate meals in the 1950s through 1970s – the halcyon days of the drive-in restaurant in the city.

The concept of food delivered right to the car window got its start in 1921 on the highway in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. J.G. Kirby, a Dallas tobacco and candy wholesaler, opened the Pig Stand, a drive-in pork barbecue.

"People with cars are so lazy, they don't want to get out of them to eat!" Kirby noted. And he was right. If you couldn’t bring the customer to the food, you’d bring the food to the customer.

It didn’t take long for the concept to catch on. A & W Restaurants, started in 1919 in Lodi, California by Roy Allen and Frank Wright, began operating drive-in locations in 1923. Even the original McDonalds concept, started in 1937 by Richard and “Mac” McDonald, included a drive-in component. In 1940, the brothers opened a drive-in on Route 66 in San Bernardino, California.

A & W, northwest corner of 109 Street at 103 Avenue, circa 1964

Nat Bailey, founder of White Spot restaurants, launched Canada's first drive-in restaurant in 1928, at the corner of Granville and 67th Street in Vancouver. The inspiration for the innovation came one hot summer day when a customer, too tired to make the walk to Nat’s food truck, leaned out his car window and shouted, "Why don't you bring it to us?"

By the next day, Nat had hired three energetic young "hustlers" to take orders from the parked cars. Because the "hopped to it" they became known as carhops.

The drive-in restaurant came to Edmonton in 1939, when local businessman Bob Brownridge opened his smart new "Drive Inn" at 10022 109th Street. It was "built along modernistic lines" with an interior finished in two tones of brown and a tan or cream exterior, punctuated by a colourful neon sign.

The advertisements said: " For the first time in the history of the city, Edmonton citizens will be able to enjoy tasty lunches and meals or cooling drinks and refreshments in the comfort of their own cars."

Edmonton businessmen Jim Rae and Bill Jarvis pushed the concept a little further along in the late 1940s. The two partners were to go onto fame as local purveyors of Kentucky Fried Chicken and operators of a little local food chain they called Burger King.

Jarvis was on holiday in Great Falls, Montana in 1947 and he stayed next to a Dairy Queen – the first drive-in he had ever seen. "I figured this was something that would really go and so I got in touch with the Dairy Queen people and asked about a location for Edmonton," the enterprising and entrepreneurial Jarvis recalls. "Well, they told me I couldn't sell ice cream to Eskimos."

Undaunted, Bill and Jim pooled their resources and opened a location at 8705 118 Avenue, leasing the site from a church. Thus the "Dairy Drive-In" was born. Bill recalls that the little outlet was busy right away. When the two year lease expired, the church wanted the property back and so the partners found another site on 112th Avenue just west of 82nd Street and hauled their building over there.

In 1957, a company operated by Earl "Buzz" Fuller opened a drive-in hamburger joint on 112th Avenue at 72nd Street, and the teenagers were drawn to it like a bear to honey. The first A & W drive-in was a huge hit, and it sparked an expansion which saw the chain open more than a dozen more in Edmonton over the next 20 years.

A & W, northwest corner of 109 Street at 103 Avenue, circa 1964

The one I remember best was a location on 118th Avenue and 123rd Street, but perhaps the most visible was the one on 109th Street and 103rd Avenue. With its grand neon sign that poured root beer from a spigot into a mug, it was a downtown landmark for more than a quarter century.

I can still hum the jingle that seemed to be playing everywhere on radio and television in the late 1960s: "Let's all go to A & W. Food's more fun at A & W. We'll have a mug of root beer, or maybe two or three . . . Hop in the car, come as you are, to A & W."

Like the drive-in theatre, these drive-in restaurants offered convenience and played perfectly to Edmonton’s car culture that was such a dominant force in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1990s, the last of Edmonton’s drive-in restaurants were gone, replaced by drive-throughs.

But in the United States, the drive-in endures, with dozens of independent operators coast to coast and franchise chains like SONIC and A & W. SONIC, founded in 1952 in Shawnee, Oklahoma, has more than 3,000 drive-ins in the U.S. and Mexico, making it the largest drive-in chain.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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