During the war people drove their cars as little as possible. Gas and tires were rationed. Car manufacturing stopped as factories turned to making tanks, Jeeps and other military vehicles. There were drive-ins around, but not many. And business wasn’t all that good.
After the war families piled into cars again. New highways were built. Drive-Ins boomed. America’s love affair with driving and drive-ins truly began at the end of the 1940s. You could get a hamburger at one drive-in and watch a movie at another. Eventually, the drive-in concept was tried in drug stores, libraries and even liquor stores.
Here are some of the more successful drive-in applications.
- Dairy Queen: The first Dairy Queen store opened in Joliet, Illinois, just before the war began. It introduced a new kind of dessert treat – ice cream that wasn’t frozen hard but was “soft served.” The inventors claimed that soft serve tasted better because it didn’t freeze the taste buds. The real story of Dairy Queen was the concept of “franchising.” At the start of World War II there were fewer than 10 Dairy Queen stores in America. After the war, more franchises were sold and new products, like malts and shakes were introduced. By 1950, there were 1,446 Dairy Queen stores. Today, Dairy Queen is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. based in Omaha, and the chain is one of the largest fast food groups in the world with more than 5,900 restaurants in the U.S., Canada and 20 other countries. This franchise serves as a market for agriculture products across the United States.
- A&W: The soft drink business struggled during the war because its key ingredient – sugar – was rationed. But the post-war years saw A&W outlets triple as GI loans gave many young men a start in business. The number of A&W drive-ins grew along with the number of cars. A&W Drive-In started in 1919 in California when a young man set up a roadside drink stand along the route of a parade honoring World War I veterans. When A&W’s founder and creator retired, Nebraskan Gene Hurtz took over and formed the A&W Root Beer Company.
- McDonald’s was actually a latecomer to the drive-in scene. Two brothers, Dick and Maurice McDonald, actually opened their first drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, CA, in 1940. But the business didn’t take off until the early 1950s when Ray Kroc, an Illinois-based distributor of a milk shake maker called the Multimixer, teamed up with the brothers who were running eight Multimixers and had a menu with only nine items on it. They featured hamburgers that were prepared super fast. Kroc partnered with the brothers to franchise the brand and eventually bought them out. Today, there are McDonald’s restaurants in 120 countries around the world serving 54 million people every day.
- Drive-in theaters. During the 1930s, most movie theaters were located on mainstreet with little space for parking. Or, town boosters played movies outdoors on the side of building for farm families coming to town to trade. The first true drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. Few drive-ins theaters were built during World War II, but the number jumped from 155 drive-ins in 1946 to 820 in 1948. New drive-ins hosted open houses to show people how to park and what food was sold. After World War II, theater owners built playgrounds so families could arrive early, let the children play, and then stay for the movie. Most drive in theaters are now closed including the one formerly in York, Nebraska.
Don Geery remembers going to the drive-in theater in York for the first time. “It was fun… That might’ve been where I got my youth back again,” he says with a laugh. “It was good entertainment.”
Written by Claudia Reinhardt, the Ganzel Group