comScore

Minnesota drive-ins: Not so kitschy now? We ask people running them.

Got a cool $400k to invest? You could do worse than buying the Dari-ette…

Got a cool $400k to invest? You could do worse than buying the Dari-ette… Rick Nelson

Sure, we might have a running list of the food items we’d consumed while driving stick, and not long ago half-joked about your car being the ideal venue for enjoying takeout during the pandemic. If not in one’s car, where else is carryout at peak freshness? Only there can your chosen company judge the choices and scarfing techniques – ducking around the steering wheel, or how you navigate that tricky dashboard rise. Plus, you’re in a literal protective bubble! 

But reality has fully settled in now, and we can’t help but wonder: Drive-ins, tho

Once a kitschy callback to the 1950s, that self-contained movie watching, vehicular-snacking setup somehow feels both safe and like the most fun thing we've been allowed to do in months.

Drive-ins, car hops – whatever you want to call them, they exist in a weird middle ground as far as COVID-19 closures are concerned, too. Hovering somewhere between dine-in and takeout, the handful of bonafide vintage drive-ins still left around these parts have also been hurt by the pandemic’s effects. 

So if these retro gems are poised for a resurgence in our minds, how are some of the Twin Cities actually holding up?     

Well, just 11 days before Governor Walz’s executive order closed bars and restaurants, Steve Schussler, longtime owner of the semi-abandoned Galaxy Drive In, announced he’d found a new operator in Mark Saliterman, who was set on breathing new life into the family favorite in “mid-April.” 

After a half-decade of slumber, it looked like 2020 might finally be the Galaxy’s big year! 

But it’s May now, and St. Louis Park’s preeminent drive-in sits vacant. Via email, Schussler told City Pages that Saliterman’s team is counting down to blast-off – and this time, the Galaxy has a new name. “The drive in will now open as ‘Clay's Galaxy Drive In,’” wrote Schussler. “Our opening has been delayed due to COVID-19, but [Saliterman] is in the process of working with the health department to get everything up to par and we will be opening soon.” 

Hanging in limbo during all this is the Dari-ette, a nearly 70-year-old drive-in on St. Paul’s eastside that’s currently up for sale. Repping the property for Edina Realty is Gary Stolzman, who confirmed the Dari-ette is available for purchase even as it’s “open, and very busy” six days a week.  

The property at 1440 Minnehaha Ave. E. hit the market back in early February for $384,900, including all the appliances necessary to run one of the metro area’s last mid-century drive-ins. “It’s working out to be a turnkey package,” the realtor said. 

Since 1951, the Dari-ette has served a unique menu blending Italian and American fare to guests delighted to dine in their cars. Sure, you could get a burger and fries and wings and ice cream sundaes; that’s why drive-ins exist! But only the Dari-ette makes it possible – nay, expected – to lose a meatball under one’s driver's seat courtesy their meatball sandwich. That sloppy thing of beauty comes covered in melted mozz’, a dusting of stinky cheese, and is garnished with a fuckin’ pepperoncini.

So, of course the Dari-ette’s price hasn’t budged. “Were it not for the COVID it would have been sold,” said Stolzman. “[Owner Angela Fida]’s throwing in all the magic recipes.”

Meanwhile, after Rob Scott, owner of Lucy’s Burgers in White Bear Township, secured a coveted PPP loan during the pandemic, he looked to the past for his restaurant’s path forward. 

“We started coming up with ideas on what we can do to, you know, innovate and stay afloat,” said Scott. “One of the ideas we came up with was old school car hop service. We purchased car hop window trays and have started to offer car hop service so people can come and order from the parking lot, get their orders delivered to their car, and eat it in their car – you know, just like the old days.”

Before like-minded businessmen made FM transmitters fiendishly hard to come by, Scott snagged one of the devices and moved much of Lucy’s former dine-in business to the parking lot – straddling that gray area between staying and going. 

Scott says Lucy’s business is most, er, hopping when it coincides with event-based programming like curbside trivia (wherein hosts broadcast questions through the radio, and guests text answers back to them), Saturday night drive-in movies (all of which have been rained out thus far), and Sunday church services, for which Lucy’s provides breakfast sandwiches, and the pulpit but not the message.

And in the end, though the clientele just… chills in their cars, in the parking lot… this solves a major business-side issue of capacity-to-profit margins, giving Lucy's more resiliency to outlast the pandemic. The car hop model also offers Lucy’s food more added value than traditional takeaway, while returning some of the je ne sais quoi (aka community) COVID-19 has stolen – at least as long as the weather holds. 

“Unfortunately, I haven't quite come up with the idea of what we're gonna do come February when people really aren't going to want to sit in their cars,” Scott says. He’ll cross that bridge later.

Though COVID may provide a degree of counter-intuitive security for these treasures that were on the brink just last year, for the rest of us, our role in this remains that of giddy patrons, jonesing for a burger with a side of nostalgia. 

Now if only we all had friends with cars, down for a drive… 

 

Clay’s Galaxy Drive In
3712 Quebec Ave S, St. Louis Park

Dari-ette Drive-in
1440 Minnehaha Ave. E., St. Paul

Lucy’s Burgers
1190 County Rd. J #700, White Bear Township