The Drive-In in Winter
Dexter's A&W goes year-round.
by Micheline Maynard
From the January, 2020 issue
On a mid-December Sunday, the temperature in Dexter read thirty degrees, and snowflakes mixed with intermittent sunshine.
But cars filled the front spaces at the A&W drive-in at the corner of Dexter-Chelsea Rd. and Island Lake Dr.
Car hops hustled to bring out metal trays of root beer, chicken tenders, and ice cream sundaes, just as they might on a warm summer day, although these staffers were dressed in parkas, ski hats, boots and fingerless gloves.
And, they'll be out there through the winter, barring a storm that shuts down the town.
"Now open all year!" declares green lettering on the A&W's door.
A billboard on the outskirts of Dexter shouts it even more loudly from a mythical newspaper front page.
"BREAKING NEWS," it reads, "Dexter A&W Open All Year!"
Coley O'Brien, the A&W's owner, says the decision was more evolution than revolution for the restaurant, which once operated only from March 1 to the end of November.
In recent years, the closing date stretched to mid-December, then to the end of December, he says. Then, they began opening for the year in mid-February, if the weather allowed, and eventually on February 1. So, it was really only shut for a month anyway.
O'Brien says he decided to stay open in January in large part to requests from the core staff of about fifteen year-round employees. (That figure grows to about fifty during the summer, when A&W adds high school and college students.)
"We were all okay with it," says Bailey Mayrand, an eight-year employee, who brought my food to my car.
"I said, if you want to do it, I'll give it a try," O'Brien says.
He says the restaurant's strong overall performance also played a role.
The Dexter location is the second-busiest A&W in the state, behind one in Monroe, and the second-busiest drive-in A&W in the country, behind a location in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, he says. A&W also has restaurants with indoor seating, which Dexter does not offer.
Moreover, it ranks among the top
twenty A&Ws in terms of sales, he says. O'Brien estimates that the average check is just $8 or $10, but on a peak day in July, they serve 1,000 customers.
Business is strongest from June through September, and slowest in the winter. O'Brien says his goal is just to post a profit during the coldest months.
He doesn't expect he'll miss many days, even if snowstorms erupt, because city and county crews do a good job of clearing Dexter's main streets.
Likewise, a sunny day can bring people out, like those who showed up in December.
If you've never been to the A&W, the drive-in works like this: You pull into a spot, and a server comes out, providing a menu if you need one. When you're ready to order, you put on your emergency flashers, and your server comes back out.
Customers can get their orders to go, or on metal trays that hang on the lowered car window. This time of year, it's a good idea to place your hot food inside the car, although cold temperatures are great for the frosty glass mugs of root beer that are A&W's specialty.
Once you've finished dining, you use your emergency lights to summon your server.
The schedule change is the latest in a series of tweaks by O'Brien, a Dexter native who bought the A&W with a partner in 2004 and assumed sole ownership in 2010.
He also owns the Fillmore Bar & Grill, the downtown Dexter restaurant previously known as Terry B's, which he purchased in 2017.
He's updated the exterior and installed an outdoor patio with tables and chairs that has a view of downtown Dexter.
That came because customers with new cars didn't like food smells permeating the upholstery, and wanted to sit outside, he says, with a laugh.
O'Brien says the A&W has become a staple in Dexter. "I hesitate to use the word 'iconic' because that's become a cliche, but for lack of a better vocabulary, that's the word," he says.
Back at the restaurant, the winter sun is starting to disappear as Mayrand comes to collect my tray.
She patiently answers a few questions, then says, "I'm sorry, I've got to run," and scurries to a nearby car.
8220 Dexter-Chelsea Rd., Dexter
Daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
[Originally published in January, 2020.]
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