Jun 3, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
After the end of the second World War, the globe went into a state of repair. Innovation and optimism were the order of the day. Consumers eagerly channeled their dreams in the form of domestic bliss. For many, that ushered in the era of a car-centric culture. Automobiles were equal parts status symbol and devices for freedom. There have been many inventions that altered the course of history, such as electric light bulbs, radios, televisions (to name a few). But the enduring love affair with the car has altered urban planning and cultural norms at a massive scale. During the 1950s as the American city pushed further afield, the family car became central to daily life. Rituals around dining and entertainment shifted to reflect this new focus. The retro series Happy Days memorialized these institutions. For this generation, drive-in culture was a way to celebrate the joy of motoring. Drive-in restaurants and theaters catered to this youthful exuberance. But in today’s world, drive-in culture is finding new meaning. During a time when we have to distance ourselves, a drive-in allows us to retain some semblance of social traditions. There have been drive-thru graduations and drive-thru church services. And neighborhoods nationwide are once again becoming home to drive-in restaurants. But where did this phenomenon begin? Let’s find out…
Many historians credit a Texas establishment with starting the trend in the early 1920s. BBQ is big business in Texas and Kirby’s Pig Stand in Dallas was famous for their pork sandwich. While the sandwiches were first sold from a street corner, within just a few years the company was supporting ten locations. If you’re looking for another compelling way to measure Kirby’s fame, consider this: 50,000 sandwiches were sold per week during the 1920s. By the way, that’s nearly one third of the population of Dallas at that time – wow! (I’d encourage you to read more about the history of this Texas legend here.) The spark started by Kirby’s was undeniable and it slowly spread to other corners of the country. While the next three decades represented steady acceptance of drive-in culture, things really soared after the War. In fact this automotive trend became so integral to society it inspired the roadside architectural movement known as Googie (which you’ll remember from our feature about fun vintage words!).
A&W Restaurants, one of the enduring names in drive-in culture, debuted around the same time as Kirby’s. Much like the founders of Kirby’s, the founders of A&W included franchising in their business plan. The model, complemented by funding from the GI Bill, introduced a rate of expansion previously unseen. A&W’s began dotting the landscape from coast to coast and by the mid-1950s they officially went international, opening franchises in Canada. Fast forward another decade and A&W restaurants could be found in Japan. Does this global appeal offer proof that drive-in culture wasn’t just an American fad? Perhaps that’s stretching it a bit, but it did prove that grab-and-go eats were here to stay. While you may not find a car hop at a Japanese A&W, you’ll still get to enjoy a cheerful atmosphere and a tasty meal.
When we consider A&W’s counterparts a theme comes into view: fun. You only have to look to the mascots for proof. Consider Rooty the great root bear, Maurie and Flaurie from Superdawg, or the Big Boy himself. Each mascot puts a smile on your face and invites you into a world where things are a bit simpler, a bit more jovial. Drive-in restaurants originally tapped into the convenience promised by automobiles, but along the way they also made a discovery. I would venture it’s this discovery, made decades ago, that’s inspiring a resurgence in drive-in culture. Drive-in’s discovered that sometimes we all need a little escape and a tasty reward. Eating french fries from a brightly colored cardboard box or putting a cheeseburger on a tray cantilevering off your car window feels like a tiny adventure. In many ways going to the drive-in is a destination and during a time when venturing out is challenging, being able to hop in the car and get dinner outside of your four walls tastes a lot like freedom! Tell me dear reader, have you made some drive-in memories recently?