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End of the Road for Drive-In

The Southland's last A&W with carhop service is calling it quits. Today's eat-and-run crowd prefers drive- through windows.

April 29, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Roll up your windows; it's time to go home.

Ontario's A&W drive-in, the last root beer stand in Southern California with carhop service, is closing Sunday.

In the birthplace of fast food, where car culture is king, the carhop is going the way of the Model T.

For 46 years, the curbside servers at A&W -- on and off roller skates -- have delivered their signature root beer floats in frosty glass mugs right to your driver's seat.

The proliferation of newfangled drive-throughs has elbowed A&W's throwback burger joint out of business.

"There's not many mom-and-pop places left," said Larry Roan, 64, who has run the stand with his wife, Sherrill, since 1971. After 3 1/2 decades of seven-day workweeks and diminishing sales, the Roans are ready to retire.

"I felt like a family member was leaving town," said longtime customer Bill Weisjohn, 63, an Ontario retiree. He and his wife, Sharon, stopped by Friday for one last deep-fried burrito and "cold, frosty diet root beer," he said.

The hot rodders who have been gathering there once a month since 1979 are sorry to see them -- and their orange freezes -- go.

Four of A&W's roughly 100 remaining drive-ins are in California, all in the Central Valley. The chain was founded in 1919 in Lodi.

Most of the company's 1,300 locations are conventional fast-foot restaurants, said A&W spokesman Rick Maynard. But the company, owned by Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., which operates Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's, has opened two drive-ins near Orlando, Fla., since 2004.

"Hot summer nights ... cruising in your classic Ford Mustang, going to the drive-in restaurant with the top down, having someone bring you a root beer float ... [visiting A&W is] like living 'American Graffiti,' " Maynard said.

Cars popped in and out of the Ontario A&W parking lot in the 1200 block of West Holt Boulevard all afternoon, as husbands and wives and daughters and sons pressed the Order-matic intercom for service and crackled their orders for fried zucchini and onion rings.

Car-window trays in hand, Roan whirled from the parking lot to the kitchen and back with floats and fries.

"People are going crazy to come to see us one last time," said Roan, wearing a black, customized cruise night jacket. "People like nostalgia; they like the old-fashioned way of doing things."

He recalled a streaker zipping through the parking lot in the '70s, and wedding parties driving up for root beer floats in limousines. The A&W was even featured on an episode of "The Bachelor" a few years back, Roan said.

Brian Glenn, 35, gobbled a bacon cheeseburger in his pickup as his mother, Betty, nursed a root beer float. "It's just another landmark that's closing down," said Glenn, an Upland music teacher whose grandmother used to take him to the A&W.

Regulars loitered in the small indoor dining area, where photos of shiny classic cars hang on the walls and fill albums on the front counter.

JoAnne Cole's family polished off orange freezes as they snapped pictures and said goodbye. Cole, 54, of Alta Loma, met her future husband at an A&W cruise night a decade ago when she noticed his '57 Chevy and he admired her '55 Chevy pickup.

The Roans and their six or so employees ran out of items as wistful crowds swamped the place; fried cheese curds, a Midwestern delicacy, were gone by afternoon. Business tripled since the couple announced early this month that they were closing, Sherrill, 62, said.

Once she has packed up the soft-serve machine, Sherrill can't wait to enjoy Sunday breakfasts, clean her closets, visit relatives and spend a few days in Las Vegas.

On Friday afternoon, a red-and-white Chevy Bel Air peeled out of the parking lot, past the chipped orange-and-brown A&W sign one last time before the drive-though gives way to the likeliest new tenant: a used-car lot.

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