"Here we come, on the run, with a burger on a bun"--- The Car Hop Song1
A few years after the end of World War II, once rationing ended and factories began producing goods for the general public again, just about everyone in America who wanted to replace his old car or buy a new car had purchased one.
It was the Age of the Automobile, the American automobile Made In Detroit : fins and chrome and horsepower. Americans loved their vehicles so much that they did as much as possible in them. More babies were probably conceived in an automobile then than at any other time in our history. People watched movies seated in their Ford at a drive-in theater. On Sunday mornings they sat in their Buick while attending services at a drive-in church. And they ate restaurant meals in their Chevrolet or Chrysler.
They did not purchase a carry-out meal in a restaurant and then eat it while seated in their vehicle. No. They drove to a drive-in restaurant where they were served a meal while seated in their Ford or Lincoln. They were served by a young man or a young woman who was known as a "Carhop".
There had been drive-in restaurants in a few cities before World War II started. On the Jersey Shore a small chain of drive-in restaurants with carhops, Celia Brown’s, was operating as early as 1936. But the true popularity of drive-in dining came after World War II, in the late 1940’s, and lasted well into the 1960’s. Drive-in restaurants of this type still exist but they rarely have been in business since the middle of the 20th century.
Frisco’s Diner in Downey, California, has carhops. It boasts it has existed since 1982 and unashamedly trades on nostalgia. Carhop trays, accessories and costumes have become collector items. Many of the teenagers who worked at or were customers of the drive-in restaurants of the 1960’s are grandparents today. They have the time and the funds to travel down Memory Lane. Collectors of antique cars from the 50’s and 60’s are also customers for carhop memorabilia: aluminum trays that attach to the outside of the driver or passenger door, heavy milkshake glasses, plastic french fry baskets.
While there were many independents in this field, usually serving local fare such as fried clams near a seashore or hush puppies in the Deep South, and some restaurants served entire three- or four-course meals, most of the drive-ins were of the type made popular by two chain restaurants, White Castle and A & W Root Beer. They sold mainly hot dogs, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, french fries, soft drinks, milkshakes and ice cream.
Often located in a tourist area, sometimes operating only during the summer months, the larger ones frequently had carhops on roller skates. Carhops were generally high school students and they were paid at or below the minimum wage. But the tips were fantastic. I know. I was a carhop myself while in high school.
I worked as a carhop at the local A & W Root Beer stand during the summer I was sixteen. It was located on the highway at the outskirts of our small town in Upper Michigan. This is snow country, and it is not very warm in the summer, either. The drive-in was open from early May until late October. The girls carhopping there did not wear those cute little skirts; they wore jeans and sweaters. The only uniform we had was a change apron in the A & W colors, orange and brown. I think if I had been fitted out in a short skirt my parents would not have allowed me to take the job. We did not have roller skates. I cannot imagine roller skating while carrying a tray full of heavy glass mugs filled with root beer.
The work week generally consisted of one afternoon shift (noon to six) and four or five evening shifts (six to midnight). The tips were better at night and on weekends. Because we closed at midnight, the owner, Vic, had assured all the parents of the carhops that he would personally drive their daughters home after the evening shift. What he didn’t mention was that he would only drive the girls home if they wanted to ride with him. I rode with Vic for two weeks, then I discovered Fun After Work.
I learned to chugalug beer and I learned to make-out-without-going-all-the-way. I learned how to sneak in the house without waking my parents. It was a fairly innocent age back then. One six-pack would be enough for two couples in an old Ford. Marijuana and other drugs were far in the future. There was no gang warfare. Very few teenage girls had their own cars then; most of the traffic was couples on dates or a pair of boys cruising.
I’ve read reports of carhops making $50 to $75 in tips on a weekend night. I don’t think I ever made that kind of money. As I remember it, mugs of root beer cost five, ten or twenty-five cents according to size, a plain hotdog was fifty cents, and a dollar was a really big tip. But I saved enough from my tips to buy my back-to-school wardrobe in September.
Our drive-in was small and not very modern. Basically, it was a large parking lot with a small building in the center. The owner worked inside with a cook in a back room.
We carhops would keep track of individual cars, taking the order, returning to the window to give the order to Vic. We paid him for the order, carried the tray to the customer, hooked it in the open window of the car, and collected the price of the meal. When finished, the driver would flash his lights so the carhop could remove the tray.
In larger drive-ins the carhop waiting on a car would tuck a numbered card under the windshield wiper and this number would be repeated on the order slip; this helped her match up the orders with the cars. Really big drive-ins had parking slots for the cars, often covered like a car port. They also had a pillar in each parking slot that held a two-way microphone so the driver could order the meal from a menu displayed on the pillar. That way a carhop only went to the car when the order was served, then again to collect the tray.
It was this innovation - the microphone for placing orders - that opened the way to the demise of the drive-in restaurant. McDonald's at that time was so small that each outlet had an outdoor overhead sign, changed weekly, advertising how many hundreds of thousands of hamburgers the chain had sold since its inception. While you could buy take-out there and at other hamburger chains, it was not the drive-through fast food operation we have today.
The other thing that brought on the fast food revolution was the use of cardboard and Styrofoam for food utensils. All the beverages served at A & W were in heavy-duty glass mugs. Throwaway plates were unknown.
It was a nice era, the years of the drive-in restaurant. Most of the customers were teenagers and young singles. The drive-in was a place to go after the movies, after making-out. Maybe a place to go instead of the movies and before "parking somewhere".
1The Car Hop Song was written by Ernie Daro and produced on the Cha Cha label (No. C-700) in June 1959 or earlier. Later it was popularized by The Flintstones in their episode, "The Drive-In".
Sources (other than personal experience):