Carhops and drive-in restaurants are classic parts of the American dining experience immortalized by George Lucas’s 1973 debut film "American Graffiti," although the carhop was already a dying institution by the film hit the silver screen. But with COVID-19 and social-distancing rules slamming sit-down restaurants, could the concept soon get a new lease on life?
A majority of people probably associate carhops with 1950s teenage girls in skimpy outfits and roller skates, delivering burgers and fries on-demand to drive-up customers. But the tradition is a bit older than most Americans realize, and started somewhat differently than what most of us picture now.
The earliest examples of carhops come from the turn-of-the-19th-century United States, when young boys were employed to rush food orders out to customers on cars (or horse-drawn carriages) awaiting their meals out front by the curb.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the pretty young carhop waitresses on skates began appearing in restaurants (and occasionally stirring up controversy) for the next 30 or so years. But their popularity began to wane in the 1960s and fast-food joints began abandoning them. McDonald’s founder Roy Kroc reportedly attributed his chain’s rapid expansion in the 1950s to its three strict practices — “no tipping, no jukebox and no carhops.”
By the time McDonald’s started adding drive-through windows to its establishments in 1975, the carhop was mostly a thing of the past, remembered nostalgically alongside drive-in movies as things we used to do.
But like drive-in movies, it seems as if carhops are now making a comeback, unexpectedly powered by a global pandemic that’s made social distancing the rule of the day and radically dimmed consumer enthusiasm for crowded indoor spaces. Some restaurants have responded by annexing the curbs in front of their buildings to create places for consumers to dine al fresco. But others are embracing the past and boldly asking: “Why eat outside when you can dine in the safety and comfort of your car’s front seat?”
And who can forget about chain restaurant Sonic Drive-In, with about 3,500 locations in 44 states?
The carhop, in other words, is making a comeback. Restaurants like OMG Burger & Brew in Long Valley, N.J., are bringing carhops in as part of the reopening process. Andrea Maletta-Bussel who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, told NJ.com that she thought carhops were the most fun take on social distancing the restaurant could offer — and a way to bring at least some staff back.
“Everyone’s excited to come back,” Maletta-Bussel said, although she admitted she has “no idea how this is going to work out.”
Equally unsure at first was Bobby Bournias, the owner of Brownstone Pancake Factory in Englewood Cliffs and Edgewater, N.J. Bournias has been offering carhop breakfast service by reservation for a little over a week and has been pleasantly surprised by how well customers are embracing the idea.
“I was actually very nervous because I haven’t done this before,” Bournias told NJ Advance Media. “But I tell you, it was a huge success.”
Carhop service has apparently been added all over New Jersey for a wide variety of restaurant fare, including burgers, breakfast, custom-created crepes and Indian and Ethiopian food. But it’s not just happening in the Garden State. According to Autoweek, carhop service is popping up all over Greater Los Angeles, particularly at restaurants considered iconic by locals, like Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake.
“This is the same Bob’s Big Boy where The Beatles once had lunch on their 1965 U.S. tour — where Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro prepared for their big heist in the Michael Mann movie Heat and where all the rock stars eat their 6 p.m. breakfasts,” Autoweek’s Mark Vaugn noted reverently of his recent carhop-served lunch at Bob’s.
Vaughn wrote that Bob’s offered carhop service when the restaurant first opened in 1949, and more recently provided it on Friday and Saturday nights as a kitschy throwback. But in an era where no one can be served inside a dining room, it’s now a full-time offering at Bob’s for not the hungry and nostalgic, just the hungry in general. Also offering carhop service is Hollywood’s iconic Mel’s Drive-In.
Will carhops overtake all of quick-service restaurants (QSRs)? Are fast-food drive-through windows about to be “disrupted” by a 100-year-old form of service?
That wouldn’t be the strangest thing we’ve seen in the past several months, but we wouldn’t bet on it yet (especially not at McDonald’s). Still, will we see a lot more carhops in the next few months than the market has seen in the past 50 or so years? That’s looking increasingly likely.