Then & Now: A & W Drive In

Then: Drawn by inexpensive, tasty food, Hastings-area residents of all ages — especially teenagers — frequented Ray’s A & W Drive In at 316 S. Elm Ave.

Now: A & W is gone. The gravel lot that once housed the drive-in restaurant is home to Miscues Pool Hall, but that doesn’t keep people from reminiscing.

Carole Bryant of Hastings, who worked at the A & W in 1963 during the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, would draw sodas and floats, and hand orders to the carhops.

“The lot was big enough that if that (the gravel lot) was full, people would drive right up behind somebody they knew,” she said. “Cars would just be everywhere. It was definitely the place to meet people, absolutely. It was a riot. You saw everybody there during the night at one point.”

Car enthusiast Tom Havel, who graduated from St. Cecilia in 1962 but who now lives in Longmont, Colo., remembers the restaurant as a place to begin the evening before cruising around Hastings. It was not unlike Mel’s Drive-In in the movie “American Graffiti.”
“You might hit that place two or three times in an evening,” he said. “Burlington was our main cruising place but you could come up Highway 6 over the viaduct and pull in there if you saw somebody you knew.”

He said along with the Whirl-A-Whip Drive Inn on South Burlington Avenue, the A & W was the place to be. The parking lot was almost always full.

“It was big enough there, there was good food and it was just a neat place to hang out,” he said.

Bryant said from what she could tell from her station and the time she spent there hanging out with friends, it was filled with people of all ages, not just teenagers.

“My parents used to take us out there and we would get root beers and hot dogs or sometimes just root beers or sometimes just an ice cream cone, just something to get out and sit,” she said. “It was all age groups, families with little kids, anybody with a car. It was definitely the place to be when the weather was good. It was cheap entertainment. It was fun.”

Hastings resident Ilene Yurk remembers fondly going there with her family in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“There was five of us kids. It was one of those things where we would take a car ride with Mom and Dad and go to the A & W and we all got those baby root beers, the kids did,” said Yurk, who turned 53 this week. “We didn’t have a lot of money but I just remember that was something that stands out in my memory being a little kid.”

There were three sizes of glass mugs back then that cost 10 cents, 5 cents and free, Bryant remembered.

For Yurk, just the experience of going to a drive-in restaurant and using the speaker and tray was special.

“I thought it looked like it was magic that it (the tray) could stay up like that and not fall down,” she said.

For Havel, Ray’s A & W was integral to his driving experience from the very beginning. It was the first place he went after receiving his drivers license when he turned 16.

He had gone on a family errand to pick up day-old bread across the street at Debus Bakery.

“The A & W was right there, so that’s where I pulled in,” he said.

Sometimes it could get rowdy.

“Probably the best fist fight I ever saw was out there at the A & W between two guys who were friends of mine,” he said.

One time when Havel was parked at A & W in his ’41 Chevrolet pickup — which had a split manifold and chrome plumbing pipe up the side for stacks — his friends filled the stacks with gravel while he was distracted talking to someone else.

“Of course when I started my truck we had gravel. … It just blew all over the place,” he said.

Fortunately, the parking lot was relatively empty then.

The glass mugs were popular with customers. They were so popular with Havel that he got in trouble with his father over an illicit collection he developed.

His father wanted to store something in the rafters of the garage at their home on the 400 block of North Briggs Avenue. There wasn’t any room there because Havel had packed it with about 70 contraband A & W mugs and 25 trays.

His father wasn’t too happy about that.

“Back in those days you’d better pay attention to what your dad says,” he said. “So I loaded my pickup full of those after the place closed (that night).”

Along with contributions from friends Havel completely lined the serving stand with stolen mugs.

He still has two A & W mugs.

“I’m sure I wasn’t one of the only ones who did,” he said about driving away with glass mugs. “Those were the good ol’ days.”

In addition to root beer floats and hamburgers, the A & W also sold cigarettes.
At just 25 or 50 cents per pack — Bryant can’t remember exactly how much — the cigarettes were quite popular.

“We sold ’em and sold ’em,” she said.

The cigarettes were popular with employees, too.

“They were pretty easy to reach right up there and take,” she said. “We’d take a pack and go back and smoke them when Ray wasn’t looking. Not exactly healthy.”

In the early 1960s Ray’s A & W was owned by Ray Dwyer.

Bryant said he was a great boss who never micro-managed employees.

At the beginning of a shift employees, nearly all of whom were teenage girls, received a hamburger and root beer. Bryant said at the end of the night Dwyer used his pickup truck to drop off everyone.

“I don’t think you would get by with that any more, kids riding around in a pickup at midnight, but it was perfectly cool back then,” she said.
Renee Lenstrom, who lives in Sargent now but who graduated from Hastings High School, worked as a carhop at the A & W the summer of 1977 when she was 14.

It was her first job, aside from baby-sitting.

“Everybody thought that was such a cool thing, that you work at A & W,” she said.

Carrying trays full of frosty, heavy glass mugs full of ice cream and soda across a crowded gravel parking lot wasn’t always easy.

“You’re out trying to carry them and all of this stuff going on,” she said. “I happened to trip and everything went flying. That’s what I remember, and I think everybody who was there may have remembered it.”

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