The famous A&W root beer float.
There are still drive-in restaurants scattered around that are open in spring, summer and fall, then close for the winter.
You drive past your favorites, looking on longingly, knowing the owners are getting a well-deserved rest, but eager for them to re-open.
However, one of the country’s most successful drive-ins has made a big decision to stay open year around.
The A&W restaurant in Dexter, Michigan, trumpeted its move in a billboard on the outskirts of town.
“BREAKING NEWS,” it declares from a mythical newspaper front page. “Dexter A&W Open All Year!”
This A&W sits on a hillside, over looking the city of 4,800 about 50 miles west of Detroit. But it is not just any A&W.
Despite the town’s small size, the Dexter A&W is the second-busiest among all A&Ws in the state of Michigan, behind one in Monroe, and it is the second-busiest of all A&W drive-ins, outranked only by Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
(A&W also has restaurants with indoor seating, which the drive-ins do not offer.)
A&W has about 600 restaurants in the U.S., out of about1,000 worldwide. It looks like 2019 was a good year for the company, which was celebrating its centennial.
In December, A&W said its year-to-date sales rose 2.4 percent, marking its best performance since 2016. It has been owned by its franchisees since 2011, when they bought it from Yum Brands.
On a peak day in July, the Dexter A&W can serve 1,000 customers, says the owner, Coley O’Brien. Their average check is between $8 and $10, meaning $10,000 a day in peak revenue.
Employment averages about 50 people in the summer, when the restaurant hires high school and college students. That drops to 15 full-time staff when the seasonable employees return to class.
O’Brien says he decided to try a year-around schedule after talking to his permanent employees.
Even though it meant working in frigid temperatures, and when snowflakes may be falling, he says staff members were in favor of the full-year move.
The restaurant’s schedule was already heading in that direction: once open only from March through November, the Dexter A&W had begun to stay open later into December, and reopen in February.
O’Brien says his goal for this first full winter is to be profitable. And, it definitely has business.
I went there twice in December for a story that originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer, a local magazine.
On my first visit, the weather was mild.
But on the second visit, a cold wind was blowing and snowflakes were falling. Yet, cars ringed the restaurant, waiting for car hops to take their orders.
The servers delivered food in the same way they do in warmer months, on metal trays that clip onto car windows, although they were wearing ski caps, parkas, boots and gloves, rather than summer clothes.
You also can get your order prepared to go.
My one tip, if you pass Dexter on Interstate-94, and decide to stop in: bring your hot food into the car. But leave your frosty mug of root beer on the tray. It will stay cold that way.
O’Brien says he isn’t concerned that he’ll lose business to snow days this winter. For one thing, road crews in Dexter and surround Washtenaw County are experienced at clearing the streets.
For another, Dexter’s schools usually decide around 5 am if there won’t be school that day. By the time the restaurant opens at 11 am, the roads are bound to improve, and parents might be looking for a place to take their kids.