County’s two remaining carhops keeping local hamburger history alive
|CARHOP COUPLE: Russ and Lynda Grant met almost 50 years ago at the Old Settlers Picnic in Ferndale, and have been married 47 years. The couple has owned Grant’s Drive-In in Ferndale for the past 21 years. Along with Boomer’s Drive-In in Bellingham, Grant’s is one of only two drive-in restaurants in the county.|
If you walk into Grant’s Drive-In, and co-owner Russ Grant is around, there is a good chance you’ll leave with more than just a hamburger. Jokes and candy suckers are often the meal accompaniments at the ‘50s-style throwback establishment in Ferndale.
Today, it was a joke.
“There are no Christmas trees in the White House,” said Grant, 69, in his typical dry delivery, surrounded by images of ‘50s and ‘60s icons such as Elvis and James Dean, and references to Route 66. And why is that? “They are decorating the bushes.”
A typical slice of homespun humor from Grant, who — with his wife, Lynda, 65 — has owned the drive-in joint for the past 21 years. Today, the business is just one of two drive-in restaurants in Whatcom County that wax nostalgic for a time long past.
Drive-in service — as opposed to drive-through service — features parking stalls where cars park and customers can place orders from behind the steering wheel. Waiters and waitresses — known as carhops — serve the food to patrons, often on trays.
“We grew up in the ‘50s, so we know that it was a good time,” said Lynda, who has worked at the same location for the past 42 years, since she was 23 years old — including 21 years as an employee under the former owner, Jack Postlewait, who ran the place as Jack’s Drive-In after it opened in 1964.
“(Business) pretty much stays the same,” Lynda said. “We’ve got a little more competition, because McDonald’s came in, or Quiznos (Subs) and Subway,” she said. “We remodeled here about 15 years ago, and made the place a little bit bigger and put in the jukebox, but it’s not much different than that.”
On this windy and rainy November day, Birch Bay resident Jim Reed, 63, is enjoying his preferred meal inside the restaurant: a Grant’s “Special” with cheese.
“I like the people here and the food is good,” said Reed, a Jack’s/Grant’s customer for the past 25 years who eats at least once — and sometimes twice per week — at the restaurant. “It’s close to home.”
For Whatcom County’s drive-ins, it does seem the more things have changed, the more things have stayed the same. Customers who frequent the eateries still expect things patrons expected generations ago: good food and good service.
Service with a smile
Drive-in service differs from drive-through service in a variety of ways, said Chris Irwin, who has owned the other Whatcom County drive-in, Bellingham-based Boomer’s Drive-In, since 1999. That restaurant will celebrate its 18th anniversary under that name in January.
“(With a carhop), there is more personal service involved. You’re not talking into a speaker,” said Irwin, who believes the current Boomer’s site started as an A&W restaurant, likely in the 1950s. “Hopefully, you’ll get a nice carhop with a big smile. And if you have questions about the menu, they’ll get answered. If you get your food, and, a) something is not right, or, b) you decide you want something else — whether it is tartar sauce or more napkins or something like that — you have the opportunity to get it because you are not halfway down the street when you discover it.”
Essentially, eating at a drive-in extends the same service you would receive from a wait staff inside a restaurant to a customer’s car.
“There are lots of places that call themselves drive-ins, and you drive in and you get your hamburger — but you have to get out of your car if you are going to get it,” Irwin said. “I think the key to any independent business is point of difference. You have to be a little bit different than anybody else. We’re not selling 99-cent hamburgers. We don’t have massive marketing budgets or anything like that, so we have to have a point of difference that people can talk about. And, the carhop is one of them.”
Another difference between drive-through service and drive-in service is in the food, said Lynda Grant.
“Everybody is in a big hurry,” Lynda said. “They go through the drive-through windows. Most (fast-food) is pre-cooked. We don’t have anything pre-cooked, so we really couldn’t have a window because it would take too long.”
The percentage of those who eat in their cars as opposed to inside the restaurant changes with the weather, Irwin said.
“Depending upon the time of year, I would say anywhere from 10 to 15 percent eat in their cars,” he said. “Most people do come in, or they call it in and come pick it up. On a cold, windy and rainy day like this, we still get people in their cars, but not very many,” he said.
The reason for this: Carhops can’t take the food out on a tray — it must be bagged to keep it warm.
“If you hang the tray on the window, you can’t close your window, and I think it becomes equally desirable to eat in the dining room as opposed to eating in the car,” Irwin said.
The dining room at Boomer’s is cozy, by design. On winter days, diners can huddle around a roaring fire in the center of the room as they scarf down waffle fries and chocolate malts, instead of sitting in the cold of their cars.
“People eat in their cars more when the weather is good,” he said. “The dining room is an attractive alternative — hopefully — at any time. It’s certainly more attractive with the fireplace and everything like that when it is cold and blustery outside.”
In Ferndale, Lynda and Russ have a different take on things.
“(Customers) come here for this kind of (rainy, windy) weather so they don’t have to get out of their cars,” Lynda said. “In the summer, we get a lot of (car customers) because people have been working out in their gardens, and they don’t have to get out of their cars. Or mainly women — they don’t have to get out of their car in this kind of weather.”
Back to the future?
Jola Guzman, 25, is a manager at Grant’s in Ferndale. She said she does a little bit of everything behind the counter, from flipping burgers to carhopping.
“It’s fun,” said Guzman, who has been there since she was 15. “It’s a chance to get outside. It gets cold, but you just deal with it.”
As is the case for many businesses, she said the summer is the busy season, although many customers come throughout the year.
“We get a lot of regulars,” she said. “It’s nice to see the same people and know the same people coming in year after year.”
High above the tables at Grant’s Drive-In are black-and-white photos featuring images of about a half dozen high school graduating classes from the 1950s. Many of those pictured are long-time customers, Lynda said.
“We are waiting on kids that are bringing their kids in now,” she said. “And a lot of grandkids.”
Lynda, who has worked as a carhop during her long drive-in career, said there is no difference between the roles of a carhop and a waitress. She said the key to being a good carhop is to keep your cool with customers.
“Well, you can stop ‘em from talking back, but you can’t stop ‘em from thinking,” she said, laughing. “You have your days where (customers) get mad, but the girls just put up with it.”
Customers indicate they are ready to order by turning on car lights. Back during the drive-in heyday in the middle of the last century, carhops would often deliver food on roller skates, although neither Grant’s nor Boomer’s have servers on wheels. On wheels or not, carhopping is more labor intensive than a customer ordering at the counter, and some restaurants might be scared off by the concept, Irwin said.
“Let’s say you’ve got a counter customer,” said Irwin, who has 19 employees. “The customer comes up to the counter, orders, pays, goes and sits down, we bring them their food and we are done with them, for all intents and purposes. With the carhops, the typical transaction would be, (the carhops) go out to the car, they take the order, they come back in and enter it in the computer, it goes back to the kitchen, the food comes up, they take the food out to the car, get the money, come back in, run the credit card, get the change, go back to the car and come back. So it’s a much slower process.”
And slower doesn’t seem to be in-step with today’s fast-paced, need-it-now culture, Lynda said.
“(Customers) want their food ready. They want it now,” she said. “They don’t want to wait.”
Irwin said it might be difficult for a new drive-in establishment to crack the Whatcom County market for several reasons.
“Part of what makes Boomer’s successful is its longevity. People know Boomer’s. They are comfortable with it. It has been around a long time,” he said. “It doesn’t mean somebody couldn’t come in and start up a good drive-in. But I think the barriers of entry are pretty high, because it’s expensive. And you are not going to find a building set up for this. You can’t go buy an existing building where you can have a (carhop).”
While the drive-in concept may not be going away — considering that a company like Oklahoma-based SONIC Corp., the nation’s largest chain of drive-in restaurants, has approximately 3,200 drive-ins coast to coast and in Mexico — it doesn’t seem to be expanding in Whatcom County.
“I doubt if we’ll ever see (new drive-in service) again. If we close, I’m sure they’ll tear us down and put a chain in,” Lynda said. “But then everything does come back.”
Good food at old prices
Today, only two drive-in restaurants exist in Whatcom County. It hasn’t always been this way. Long-time Whatcom County residents might remember restaurants such as Mastin’s Drive-In Cafe and Bunk’s Drive-In.
Both of those establishments are long-out-of business, but their menus live on. Below are some of the menu items and the prices you could have expected to pay.
Bunk’s Drive-In, 2220 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham
• Bunks’s Special (Burger with Fries): 50 cents
• Fish, Chips, Catsup or Tartar Sauce: 65 cents
• Chocolate Malt: 35 cents
Mastin’s Drive-In Café
100 Samish Highway (U.S. 99), Bellingham
(Minimum Service 10 cents; No Substitutions)
• Hot Pork or Beef Sandwich with French Fries: 75 cents
• Breaded Veal Sandwich: 85 cents
• Creamy Milk Shakes, Any Popular Flavor: 25 cents