Drive-in restaurants have always seemed like a relic of a time gone by, but it could be the most unlikely of scenarios — a pandemic — that makes them more relevant than ever.
"Business has been surprisingly good," says Eric Burroughs, owner of The Root Beer Stand. "I can honestly say it's one of the few bright spots during this crisis. The sense of community is astounding. So many customers thank me for being open. I always respond, ‘I'm the one that should be thanking you.' "
Randy Kaplan, co-owner of The Parkette in Lexington, Kentucky, says he's also seeing a surge in customers. "The community has rallied around local restaurants, and I'm actually hiring people. This business was more of a novelty until now, but people's mindsets are changing, and they're re-examining things and discovering how a drive-in can be a fun way to eat out safely."
While restrictions vary from state to state, drive-ins have been mostly unscathed by orders that have shut down nearly all restaurants' dining rooms. After all, social distancing is a lot easier when you don't even have to get out of the car. Kaplan says The Parkette has become a gathering spot for families and friends who can roll down their windows, keep a safe distance, "and eat together but apart."
Of course, there have still been some changes. For instance, at the Mug-n-Bun in Indianapolis, servers are wearing masks and gloves, and the limited dine-in and outdoor seating areas are closed. Sonic, the modern face of drive-ins with more than 3,600 restaurants in 46 states, is encouraging diners to limit contact by ordering and paying using its smartphone app.
Kaplan says the entire crew at The Parkette is wearing gloves, and he's set up new sanitization stations and always has wipes at the ready. At The Root Beer Stand, enhanced safety measures include a limited menu that requires fewer workers, and masks and gloves at all times. Employees have their temperatures taken when they enter the building, and on the restaurant's website, customers find a video about food safety from the director of the Ohio Department of Health.
"Our ability to get creative and adapt quickly has truly saved us," Burroughs says. "We developed a completely contact-free pick-up system under our carport so employees never come closer than 6 feet to customers. For 60-plus years, we were a cash-only business that hand-wrote every order. Within two weeks, we were completely cashless and began taking all orders online, over the phone, and through DoorDash."
Restaurants that weren't even drive-ins to begin with are embracing the concept, too. Some, like Fireside BBQ & Bar in Overland, Kansas, have encouraged diners to sit and eat in their cars with parking-lot concerts. And others, like Peoples Restaurant and Lounge in Corpus Christi, Texas, are encouraging takeout customers to linger with movie screenings.
"In our community, when The Root Beer Stand opens each year, it is a true sign of spring," he says. "When I see customers sitting on their tailgate with the sun beaming down enjoying a cheese coney and a cold root beer, in that brief moment, everything is how it should be."