Before we return to true ArchaeoBlogging, a brief reminiscence of my recent trip back to the motherland of Wisconsin. This is kind of an odd entry, because at first blush one might think it will be another bit of musing on some nostalgic aspect of my childhood when, in fact, that’s not really the case at all. On the other hand, the subject does go back to my childhood years and presents something of a case study in the right way to either “do retro” or at least maintain it. To wit, first a photograph:
Those are some of the carhops from the Gille’s Frozen Custard Drive-In in Fond du Lac, WI. A true drive-in from the old days: no indoor seating at all. It’s been there in its present form since the late 1940s, largely unchanged for the most part; check the History link for a summary of the place.
Now, I remember Gille’s from my youth, driving past it so many times it’s not worth considering how many. Odd thing is, we never, ever stopped there when I was a kid. I’m not sure why not. We did frequent the local A&W drive-in both as a family and when we were out on our own; ditto the local Dairy Queen, although that wasn’t a drive-in. Maybe we weren’t too sure about the whole “custard” thing, I dunno. But we never did, so I really have no personal memories of the place, other than seeing it a lot.
Fast forward to the 1990s and the ArchaeoWife and I going back to Fondyberg for various vacations. For whatever reason, during one of those trips we decided to stop in. O.M.G. How did I ever not go there?? It’s not a quantum leap over traditional ice cream, but their sundaes are just oh-so-yummy. And so easy, which is, indirectly, one reason we never went there. See, at Gille’s, when you need a carhop to come over, you turn on your lights and one of them pops over in a jiffy. At the A&W, by contrast, they have big menus at each stall with an intercom system. To this day I have kind of a bad feeling about those things (and that A&W) because one of the first times I remember going there, my dad pressed the intercom button, the voice came on, and dad gave her our order. Silence. We waited for something (anything!) to happen, but still. . . .nothing. Tried it again. Still nothing. We eventually just drove off in disgust, and I’ve never felt the same way about the place since.
But getting back to Gille’s, we’ve been going there often on every trip since and I can’t really say enough good things about the place. It’s still got that old-timey drive-in look-and-feel to it, right down to the hand-painted big-board menu. A few years ago, we (and quite a few people, no doubt) started walking instead of driving there — it’s a pleasant walk from the homestead and makes you feel a bit less guilty about eating a sundae after dinner — and they thoughtfully started putting some picnic tables (always clean and in good repair) at the back of the parking lot on the empty lot they owned (see History link above), eventually adding in a nice canopy. The lot is also nicely groomed lawn with some shade trees, so it’s pleasant back there.
The nice thing is that, despite being old-timey and probably having much original equipment, it’s all clean and in good condition, not run down and dirty or falling apart or anything. Everything is well-maintained and manages to give you that old fashioned drive-in experience without seeming too ‘old’. And altogether much nicer than the modern take on 1950s diner/drive-ins.
The best part is the service. We’ve never been disappointed there. The headlights-on thing is simple, but incredibly effective. And the staff, at least the carhops that we’ve dealt with over the years, are always always always pleasant, well-trained, and efficient. And, er, well, generally young and female. =) The nice thing is, they haven’t tried to “sex up” the car hops with miniskirts and roller skates or what have you; that’s their usual summer attire in the photo above: standardized, functional, probably comfortable, but “attractive” without being distracting. They’re nearly always moving; your headlights aren’t on for more than a minute before one of them comes over to take your order (which they’ve never gotten wrong) or remove your tray. And they know how to make change in their head! Like I said, well trained and simply a pleasure to deal with.
As I said, most of them are in high school or maybe early college, although there are a few older women, probably mostly during the non-summer seasons (I think they’re usually open from about March until late November). I chatted with a couple of them while waiting for the ArchaeoWife this last time; two were starting their first year of college this fall, one locally and the other at UW-Madison. One of them wore a pedometer once and found she’d walked nine miles in a shift, and the manager also chimed in and said another had clocked up 12 miles. As I say, they’re working. Yeah, I did also inquire as to whether they’d ever had any male carhops, but they only knew of a couple that “hadn’t worked out”. Not that I’m complaining. . . . .
Whatever the case, the young ladies out on the front lines are a great credit to the company, and I wanted to give them a shout-out here, as well as to the organization as a whole: really a well-run small business that serves the customer well. They only have three locations, all in Wisconsin, so none of you will probably ever visit the place, but I hope to at least leave you with a good idea of how a good, old fashioned drive-in can really function well in the modern world.