A day at the drive-in

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For many folks in these parts, Swenson’s Drive-In is synonymous with hamburgers — really good hamburgers, the kind pictured in a 1999 Forbes magazine article on one New York Times correspondent’s favorite U.S. restaurants.

The caption simply reads: “Behold America’s best cheeseburger.”

The sandwich is a cardiologist’s worst nightmare: two ground-chuck patties and a layer of cheese served on a toasted bun slathered with real butter. (Owner Stephen Thompson denies the Akron-born scribe’s suggestions that molasses is used in the patties to help them caramelize on the grill and that the cheese is Cheez-Whiz.)

But since the Depression, locals have ignored their arteries and flocked to the tiny drive-in on South Hawkins Avenue, even during those notorious Northeast Ohio winters, allowing it to thrive while other drive-ins went the way of poodle skirts and bobby socks. Over the years, Swenson’s locations have opened on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue (late 1950s) and in Stow (1987), Montrose (1995) and Canton (1998).

Thompson stresses that he hasn’t gone out of his way to peddle nostalgia.

“I really am selling food,” he says.

But he has yet to install a single drive-through window at any of his eateries. Instead, he still employs dozens of waiters to “run curb,” taking orders from patrons in parked cars and returning with trays of shakes and fries — something his teen-age employees may have seen before only in late-night-movie screenings of “American Graffiti.”

And he’s quick to extol the virtues of dining in front of the dashboard.

“There’s just too many great things about eating in your car,” he enthuses. “You can smoke if you want to. You can listen to whatever music you want. It’s probably the most expensive chair you own — and probably the best-designed chair, actually. If you want to be alone, you can be alone. You can say whatever you want to.

“Besides getting crumbs on the interior, it’s a pretty good environment to eat in.”

Thompson, 53, grew up with the Swenson’s legacy. His father and the son of Swenson’s founder Wesley T. “Pop” Swenson, both doctors, were friends. Their children attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School together, and Thompson worked five or six shifts a week as a curbside waiter at Swenson’s South Hawkins Avenue location while studying business administration at the University of Akron.

Thompson, an energetic, entrepreneurial individual who enjoyed his high school job as a Brown Derby busboy, didn’t mind the schedule. He says Swenson’s “got into my blood, like the circus.”

“When I worked there, I wanted to open a similar restaurant, maybe someplace with a little better weather,” he says.

But fate intervened. The two Swenson’s Drive-Ins had entered a period of decline by the time Thompson graduated from college in 1972. Bob Phillips, the man to whom “Pop” Swenson had sold his restaurants, had died, and Phillips’ widow was struggling to run them even as her own health failed. In 1974, Thompson ended his brief career as a life-insurance salesman and became the proud proprietor of Swenson’s original location.

“The Swensons (who still owned the property on which the restaurants sat) always really liked me, and the owner really liked me, so I just kind of took over the one on South Hawkins,” he explains.

By the early ’80s, he had acquired the Cuyahoga Falls Avenue location from the Phillips’ daughter and son-in-law.

The first thing Thompson did as a new owner was “to go back to the way things were when I first worked there.” His predecessor had not only raised prices, but started cutting corners in an effort to boost declining revenue. Orders were served with one pickle instead of three; oleo was used instead of butter; and “second-rate” French fries, mustard, chocolate, etc., were being served.

“Things got so bad that at one point she was actually serving a partially soy burger,” he says. “You could almost spread the meat with a knife.”

Thompson rehired the restaurant’s old butcher, then obtained the recipe for the original buns from the bakery that made them. When that bakery went out of business, he took the recipe to another company and had the buns made to his exact specifications.

And the drive-in once again began using “the best butter you can buy” — an ingredient about which Thompson is particularly persnickety.

“I’ll go in a restaurant, pay $25 a plate, and they will serve me something that is not butter,” he says, his mild-mannered voice flaring with indignation. “Some of the new products are actually pretty close to tasting like butter at one-third the price. But I just refuse to change it. It makes a difference on every bun.”

Perhaps just as important as the quality of food is the classic drive-in atmosphere Thompson strove to maintain. The design of the restaurants — even the newer ones — has remained much the same. And he refuses to install those “speaker boxes” that allow waiters to stay in the restaurant and take orders instead of walking out to the cars.

The contraptions, he charges, reduce the customer contact that is so much a part of the drive-in experience to the few moments required to drop off food at a parked car.

“Soon after the speaker boxes came, the drive-ins started going out of business,” he says. “When the owners lost their touch with their customers, it was the beginning of the end. … It was a very impersonal style. You talked to a faceless person.”

Thompson hasn’t had a problem finding young workers who are willing to run to and from customers’ cars trying to achieve their boss’s goal of serving each patron made-to-order items in 10 minutes or less.

“I get to see a lot of quality people,” he says. “If you’re a high-energy person, it’s a great place to work.”

In 1995, Thompson’s older brother, Ronald, came on board, and approximately three years ago, Thompson hired a former Swenson’s waiter — a top-notch server who had worked his way through college — to help him run his mini-chain of drive-ins.

Aside from the number of restaurants, the biggest change at Swenson’s has been to the menu, which has expanded to include items such as pork sandwiches and vegetarian hamburgers.

“The previous owner taught me one lesson, and it probably holds true today,” Thompson says. “It was the fifth-person-in-the-car theory: You didn’t want to lose four customers because the fifth person wanted the chicken dinner. There’s quite a few extraneous items we don’t sell a lot of, but they’re for that purpose.”

In fact, Thompson surmises that Swenson’s willingness to go the extra mile for customers is one of the reasons the business has continued to grow.

“We’ll do about anything,” he admits.

A layered milkshake — a layer of chocolate, a layer of strawberry, a layer of vanilla — was created at one imaginative customer’s request, a labor-intensive concoction Thompson estimates would be priced at $8 if it were on the menu. The restaurant offers free milk for babies (waiters return to the kitchen with baby bottles to fill and warm them); a “doggie burger;” a plain hamburger without the bun wrapped in paper and served on a plate (10 cents less than a regular hamburger); even free water for Fido.

“Doggie 81 is the code for it, which is water in a styrofoam soup bowl,” Thompson says.

But not every encounter with a four-legged patron is a pleasant one.

“We’ve had some pretty close calls,” he says with a chuckle. “Not all the dogs care that much for the waiters. The guys warn each other: ‘Watch out for the dog in 25.’

“It’s pretty scary when you come up to a car, you don’t know the dog, and all of a sudden they’re out the window.” How to reach: Swenson’s Drive-In, (330) 928-3797