While many dining establishments constantly strive to keep trendy and current in their campaigns to both attract and retain customers, for the patrons supporting the Old Town Drive-In over several generations spanning 70 years, change is something they resist. Indeed, continuity is perhaps the key ingredient in their recipe for success.
This is because the orange & black building located at the corner of 807 S Granger & Gratiot in Saginaw’s Old Town District still stands today as essentially the same business it was back in 1940 when it first opened as an A&W coney-dog & root beer franchise. And for the 500 to 700 patrons that visit it on a good business day, going back to the Old Town Drive-In is not unlike Michael J. Fox jumping into the Delorean to take a trip back into time to experience something familiar that is as fresh as the day it first opened.
Apart from offering tasty coney-dogs, steaming hamburgers, mouthwatering chili, and incredible tasting root beer and root beer floats concocted from their tasty signature recipes, the Old Town Drive-In still offers curbside service that allows you to place your order and wait for delivery directly to your car; and for those entering the restaurant for indoor service, patrons are greeted with fresh copies of daily newspapers they can quickly browse while their meals are being prepared with an amazingly quick turnaround time.
But mainly, the Old Town Drive-In stands as a proud reminder that unique entities offering quality, affordability, and consistency become more valuable and cherished with each passing day
According to owner & operator Geoff Emede, the business was owned by the Farwells when they first opened it as an A&W franchise and then sold it in the early 1970s. Two other families operated it after that and Geoff bought the operation from a family that had owned it for just under 5 years when A&W decided to change the way they operate.
“A&W wanted to drop the car-hop service and they also added new requirements that each of their franchises had to have a certain amount of square footage per building,” explains Geoff. McDonald’s restaurants came along and standardized the way a franchise was supposed to operate, as every one of their restaurants are basically the same; so A&W decided they need to follow suit. Consequently, they dropped certain things, added others, and required that this building be a certain size in order to continue as an A&W, which couldn’t be done, so they pulled the franchise when it came up for renewal.”
The former owners changed the name of the business, but none of the signs and did no advertising, so at the time, nobody realized a change had actually taken place. “We bought it roughly a year after that happened and instantly decided to stay open all year, which had never been done, as previously this particular franchise would always close in the winter.”
Basically, Geoff’s approach was to retain all the values that corporate wanted to drop – especially the car-hop service – while also adding and expanding the daily menu. “To this day if people want to call us A&W, we let it go. But over the years we have added things to the menu and experimented with things according to trends. We went through a period where we offered salads, but discovered that in real life people don’t really come here for salads.”
All the distinctive recipes – especially for such signature items as their coney sauce & root beer – were passed along during the various ownership changes – and are A&W based. “I believe the recipe for the coney sauce is basically the same as it was back in the ‘40s,” states Geoff. “Mr. Farwell would come in here every Wednesday morning while his wife got her hair done and I had the opportunity to ask him if bologna was ever used in the sauce and that type of thing; but we follow the same recipe and do make the sauce here on site. As for the tomato products, subtle differences might occur depending upon how the crops change; but it is definitely the same as it always was.”
The Daily Specials at Old Town Drive In are also the same as they were when Geoff took over 28 years ago. “On Thursdays they previously would feature a 3-piece chicken dinner and we moved to chicken wings instead, so have done some tweaking with the menu here and there; but if anything, we’ve added more items to the menu than those we’ve taken away.”
A rundown of their daily specials includes cheeseburgers on Monday for only $2.95; coney dogs on Tuesday for $1.75; Sizzle Steak on Wednesday for $2.65; a chicken wing basket on Thursday for $6.50; a fish basket on Friday or $6.90; and a Basket Burger on Saturday for only $3.99.
The restaurant business is nothing new for Geoff, as he managed to cut his teeth in the business starting out working with the local Texan restaurant chain at the age of 16. “I worked my way up through washing dishes to managing a couple different Texan locations,” he explains. “I was there at the beginning with the original ownership and as different stores were sold off, I would move to a different location. That experience was very invaluable.”
“Today much of the restaurant business has turned into a franchise world, so on that level I’ve been lucky enough to have found a good niche,” reflects Geoff. “This location is very important to us and if I change much of anything I’m in trouble. My customers are resistant to change and in many ways we are bridge to nostalgia and form an important connection with peoples’ past and their memories of it.”
“I see a lot of people that grew up in Saginaw and would frequent this establishment and then go to college or move to other states,” continues Geoff. “When they come back home to visit it’s crazy – they go on and on about how amazed they are to find everything tasting and looking the way it was in their youth. I wish there was a way to make the sauce so you didn’t have to refrigerate it, because we get a lot of demand for shipments and orders. I get phone calls all over the country from people wanting us to ship the sauce to them – and with the whole Internet thing, you can pretty much get anything you want. I tell people it can be done for a cost, but that scares 90% of them away, given the cost to ship with one or two-day delivery in dry-ice. It can cost $40 to $50 just to ship it to somebody across country, but some still want it so bad they will have us do it.”
Geoff also notes his luck at securing a body of loyal and dedicated employees. “A lot of the people I have working here have been with us for 20-years plus, which I feel very fortunate about,” he adds. “I knock on wood that I don’t have to deal with employee turnover the way most places do.”
“I would also say that the biggest misconception people have is that doing business in this part of town is somehow sketchy,” concludes Geoff. “A lot of people that come back to visit will ask, ‘Is this still okay here?’ and I always tell them, ‘Yes – we’re doing fine’ Old Town is a great area of town and it is growing all the time. I feel very fortunate that we are still able to do our thing, grow, and form a connection between people and something they value so deeply.”
Old Town Drive In is located at 807 S. Granger & Gratiot in Saginaw. They are open at 11 AM every Monday – Saturday and closing hours are seasonal. You can reach them at 989-799-4162 and check them out online at oldtowndrivein.com
16th November, 2023