Root beer stand, a Culver legend, turns 55
There are few entities so quintisentially "Culver" -- and so cherished by generations -- as that small root beer stand near the beach, known since 2003 as The Original Root Beer Stand.
This summer marks the 55th anniversary of the business operating in Culver, at 824 Lake Shore Drive. Prior to that, then-owner Donald "Casey" Jones had operated it in Plymouth, but moved the building, foundation, and equipment by truck from Plymouth to Culver! At the time, it was an A&W root beer stand, as it would stay for some time.
Shortly after the 1956 move, according to a May, 1962 Culver Citizen article, Jones sold the business to Mr. and Mrs. Mervin Lewis of LaPorte, who ran it until 1959, when Mr. and Mrs. Carl Eby bought it. Their son Jan actually remembers his parents buying it in 1957, and his mother working there right up to Jan's birth in 1958. In fact, Jan says the Lewis' never actually ran the restaurant, but simply owned it briefly before the elder Ebys.
Jan and his brother were both born in the heart of the restaurant's busiest period: July 4, 1957, and July 4, 1958, respectively. Their mother was back to work, says Jan Eby, on July 5th!
A tradition established under the Ebys has continued to this day: opening up the Friday before spring break, which gave the owners time to train the new student workers (the final weekend each year remains Labor Day weekend as well).
And student workers -- typically high school age, and always female, except a few experimental exceptions in the form of boys who "just seemed to distract the girls" -- have also made up the traditional base of employees at the place, says Eby, who started working there himself at age 11 (his brother was 12) washing mugs and handling other duties an hour at a time between trips to the beach.
"I started working there at that time and I never stopped working there," he recalls. "My mom and dad owned two other drive-ins, in Argos and Walkerton. Dad ran those, and mom ran Culver. Once I went to college, I managed it for them and my mom ran it half the time and I did it half the time, from 1976 to 1980. My whole life from the time I was 11 years old had been there, every summer."
The original (much smaller) building which had moved here from Plymouth, says Eby, was torn down and replaced with the present structure in 1964, though the carport still in use today came with the 1950s stand. The newer structure has a basement, unlike its predecessor, and one-third of that space was often the Eby children's living quarters, bunk beds and all, during open season. The family lived in Argos at the time and in summertime, Eby says his parents sometimes also rented one of the tiny fishing cabins across the alley to the west (a few still remain today), and put the children to bed there for the night.
"It wasn't a bad childhood," he muses. "It was really nice. There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood; it's different than now, when everybody stays indoors playing video games."
The senior Ebys owned the business through the summer of 1982, after which they sold it to Jan and his wife Sandy. Soon thereafter, in 1984, the restaurant ended nearly 30 years as a part of the A&W root beer franchise, when that company shifted its format and began requiring salad bars in its restaurants, and moving into malls.
"We decided to drop (the A&W name)," recalls Jan Eby, "and we went independent. It didn't hurt us a bit. Business increased every year from 1982 to 2003."
Interestingly, though the Culver stand dropped the A&W name and logo, it was actually allowed to keep the old A&W root beer recipe, since the A&W chain had opted to go with a whole new recipe.
"We made our own root beer," says Eby of the period before dropping A&W, though the practice continues today. "The ingredients weren't coming through an A&W supplier. They told us what to use. All we had to do (when we dropped the A&W franchise) was get rid of the logo. Nothing else changed.
"To this day," he adds, "nothing's changed of that root beer…also, the year we dropped the franchise is also the year A&W changed their whole sandwich menu, so we were able to keep the old sandwich names, such as the burger family -- the Mama Burger and Papa Burger. We kept that a few years, and then we revamped our whole menu."
There were locally-based name changes as well, such as the Original Big Guy Burger, which Eby named after his friend, longtime Culver High School math teacher John Browder. He says Browder rarely came to the restaurant, telling Eby, "You don't have a sandwich big enough."
"I said, 'By God we will this year!' So in 1988 or 1989, we added that and it’s our most popular sandwich. The first one ordered that year was by one of his students -- I believe it was Justin Ash or Brian Harris or both -- at that time everybody knew it was named for him."
Not much on the menu changed through the years, says Eby, which he says followed the, "if it wasn't broke, don't fix it" philosophy. A few things were added here and there to spice things up, however, he recalls, such as “Top Ten Reasons to Go to Eby's Drive-In” lists, giveaway puppets for customers' dashboards, the "19 coney dogs in one sitting" eating record, bicycle giveaways, and the like.
However, Eby says he and his family, after 22 years of owning the stand, tired of "a lot of hours when all your buddies are on the lake having fun and you're busting butt 15 hours a day."
He and Sandy's own children out of college, they decided it was time to slow down a bit, so they prepared to sell the restaurant (Jan would go on to manage the Culver Cove for over three years before his present job as tip boss at the Blue Chip Casino; Sandy is an X-ray technician at the hospital in Plymouth).
Mark Damore, meanwhile, had always had an itch to be on the "other side" of his business of selling fresh fruits and vegetables to chefs and restaurant purchasing agents in Chicago. So, when he found out in 2003 that the root beer stand was for sale, he jumped at the chance to buy it. Together with business partner Phil Douglas of Illinois (and both men's wives), Damore -- who was honored with Culver Lions Club's annual Community Service Award in 2008 for the lengthy list of local endeavors he's supported since moving here in 2002 -- purchased the restaurant in May, 2003.
He re-dubbed it The Original Root Beer Stand, noting many people in town simply called the business "the root beer stand," but adding the twist that incorporated the name of one of his other businesses, The Original Chicago Produce Company.
Other than a new paint job, new menu boards and a neon sign for "better sign recognition," Damore says he hasn't changed the place much (though he's added some of that fresh produce he knows so well to the menu, as well as a few sandwich and meat additions).
His smartest move, Damore says, was keeping manager Heather Overmyer, who's been working there for 25 years.
"That was key," he says. "That place runs like a fine-tuned machine. I do the books and my wife does payroll. Heather runs the rest of it and makes schedules."
Overmyer says she started work at the root beer stand as a freshman in high school, not unusual for employees of the business, which currently has a staff of 28, many of them part-time.
"We're one of few that hire people at (age) 14, but they can't work past 7 p.m. But in high school, it's one of their first jobs, and many still like it, so they go to college and find another job, but they pick up more hours here."
One such employee is waitress Jen Snyder, who's on her 12 year at the restaurant.
"It can be hard work," says Overmyer, who teaches kindergarten at Culver Elementary School the rest of the year, "but you get over it. We have a fan (in the restaurant), but no air conditioning. It can get up to 110!"
Waitresses usually make extra money as car-hops, she notes.
"There are not many drive-ins around any more, and not many still have the tray for your car."
Overmyer says some of the popularity of the root beer stand, in a community like Culver with so many fine dining establishments, is the affordability of the food.
"We're not cheap," she points out, "but it's less expensive than the other restaurants. I buy quality food to sell at a reasonable price. And we still have Coney dog Tuesdays for $1. It was 50 cents when I started! In 25 years, only increasing 50 cents isn't bad, is it?"
That Coney dog recipe, by the way, has also been around a while. Overmyer notes it's been handed down through generations.
Another large part of the appeal of the stand is nostalgia, she explains.
"We get so many people who come in and say, 'It's just like when I was a kid,' especially with the summer camp kids. My parents say they used to come here as a kid."
Plus, she points out, friends of high school students who work there come in to see them, "and the boys like (the waitresses') shorts!"
And of course it isn't just customers who recall the place as an integral part of their experience of growing up in Culver; it's also the staff alums.
"My aunts worked here when they were in high school," says Overmyer, "so it's kind of like a family tradition, really.”
There aren't many truly unusual memories Overmyer has of her 25 years at the restaurant, though a break-in and robbery a few years ago is the exception. Thieves broke the store's window and beat the cash register to pieces "and got the little amount of money that was there," she recalls.
"I've had fun or I wouldn't be doing this for so long," she reflects. "Working with my fellow employees is the most fun part. They're kind of carefree. It's just a job to help pay small bills or for school (for them). I think it keeps me younger. It's somewhat like still being a teenager."
Damore affirms the quality of Overmyer's and the staff's work.
"I have the best staff," he says. "I pay more than most places, but they deserve it. They like it, and I treat them with respect when I go there. I don't act like I own the place. When I go there to eat, I pay. (The staff and I) respect each other -- they're like my daughters."
Damore even keeps the methodology at the Original Root Beer Stand traditional. In spite of offers to transition to hand-held computers to take orders, waitresses still arrive at cars with pen and paper in hand. Even credit cards are off the menu.
Damore also insists on cleanliness at the establishment, something he says people recognize. He further believes the restaurant's success is a combination of "the food, the convenience, the service, the prices, the location, and the kids (who work there).
"People like sitting in their cars and getting food at the window. I like it better because it's more ‘summery.’ It fits the lake."
Damore says the root beer stand is his "favorite business" (he also packages and ships fruit around the country, in addition to his supplying business to Chicago eateries), and he says he'll have it after he retires.
"I love it," he adds. "We love Culver; we can't do enough for it. The schools are great -- everything's great. How could we not support it? The lake got us here, but it's the people here. We love the people."