For a trip back to the “good ol’ days,” nothing beats a burger at The Suds in Greenwood, where cruising, carhops and curb service still are the main ingredients of a Saturday night on the town.
A uniquely American institution that developed along with the car culture, the drive-in restaurant was introduced in the 1920s, enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and conceded victory in the 1970s to the more efficient drive-through restaurant symbolized by McDonald’s and its Golden Arches.
Both trace their ancestry to Texas where two businessmen opened a joint called the Pig Stand along the Dallas-Fort Worth Highway in 1921. Servers called “tray boys” delivered barbecued pork sandwiches and sodas to customers sitting in their cars.
The first Hoosier drive-in opened in West Lafayette in 1929. The Triple XXX was a franchise operation that served an acclaimed root beer brand brewed at an Anheuser Busch facility in Galveston, Texas.
Root beer, burgers and fried pork tenderloins were standard menu items at Indiana drive-ins. Popular chains included A&W and Dog ‘n Suds, which claimed to have the “world’s creamiest” root beer recipe.
Most early drive-ins were housed in undistinguished, boxy buildings that could be built almost overnight. Over time they evolved into eye-catching structures surrounded by parking lots with overhangs to shelter cars from the elements. Architecture to complement the drive-in’s theme was a common marketing ploy.
An example was the Wigwam in Indianapolis, later renamed the Tee Pee, a sprawling white building adjacent to the Indiana State Fairgrounds topped by a conical tipi structure resembling an American Plains Indian’s home.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the drive-in restaurant was the carhop, the name given to the waiters and waitresses who took orders and delivered the food on trays that clipped to the car window, often just for the price of the tip. The term was coined at the Pig Stand where male servers competed for customers by hopping on to the car’s running board as it drove up to the stand.
In 1948, Harry Snyder opened the first In-N-Out Burger in California, a drive-through hamburger stand that would be the forerunner of the successful model used by McDonald’s, Burger King and others. This doomed the drive-in, which “could not compete with these new fast food, self-serve, low-cost chains,” according to the “Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in American History.”
A notable exception is the SONIC chain, founded in the 1950s and based in Oklahoma City, with over 3,500 restaurants that still rely on carhops sometimes wearing roller skates.
A handful of mom-and-pop drive-ins also continue to thrive patronized by customers on nostalgic road trips.
At one time, there were more than 100 Triple XXX “thirst stations” in the United States and Canada. Only the Indiana restaurant and one in Issaquah, Washington, survived. Today the Triple XXX Family Restaurant is a favorite hangout for students at Purdue University, open year-round but no longer offering curb service.
The Suds in Greenwood, which opened as Dog ‘n Suds in 1957, closed and reopened many times through the years until car enthusiasts stepped in to save it. The restaurant at 350 Market Plaza, hosts a classic car cruise-in every Saturday night in warm weather months that jams the parking lot and adjoining street.
“If you look up the word profit in the dictionary, you won’t see The Suds,” jokes co-owner John Wagner. “It holds its own, which is fine with us. We do it for the nostalgia. There’s still a lot of fun in it. And a lot of friendship.”
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.