“Still open for a limited time” reads the A&W Drive-in billboard on Baker Rd. It doesn’t bother to specify–because everyone in Dexter knows–that it’s a seasonal, not a permanent, closing. For that matter, the billboard doesn’t even give the equally superfluous address on Dexter-Chelsea Rd. at Main St. The A&W’s gradual winding down as the snow begins to fly, and its ramping up again when the crocuses come out, has been part of the annual rhythm of Dexter since Roy Hoeft built the drive-in in the 1960s.
As most Dexter locals could tell you, that’s drive-in, with real carhops, not drive-thru. That and the draft root beer distinguish this from newer competitors. Coley O’Brien, who has owned the Dexter A&W since 2004, says he doesn’t know how many A&Ws are left in the country: “It’s a moving target”–about 1,100 last year, spread over ten countries, reported RestaurantNews.com, and among those, the carhop service is becoming rarer. The company is focusing on what it calls the “3-D” campaign–“drive-in,” “dine-in,” and “drive-thru.” Dexter’s A&W is about as classic as they get. It closes each winter because there is no drive-thru window, and the dine-in option consists of two tiny counters, not enough to make the snowy months viable. Things were still going strong in mid-October though. On a Sunday afternoon, six employees were clocked in. Running the show that day were manager Ashley Humphrey and crew Hannah Howard, Megan Westphal, Kendall Warner, Joshua Howard, and Shaye Rumberger (all slowed down enough to spell their names, but were busy enough that attempts to get ages and other details broke down).
The tiny glass-fronted building is perched on a slight swell and framed by Mill Creek and the picturesque stone railroad trestle. When you pull up under the wide, fluted orange awning a cheery carhop will bound out of the building–no roller skates or retro uniform, but she will have a change belt strapped around her waist as well as a smartphone to take orders. And it will almost certainly be a “she,” though O’Brien firmly says they don’t discriminate against men. “We’ve had the occasional male carhop–two that I can think of off the top of my head.” Back in the kitchen, though, Hannah Howard, finishing up her second season at A&W, says that it’s a local tradition that “guys don’t do carhopping.” Otherwise, she says, all the employees are trained to do everything, including making root beer. She shows the corner of the kitchen that is the root beer laboratory. “We fill the barrel with sugar and water, add [root beer] syrup, put it in kegs. It mixes with the carbonation at the tap.” O’Brien says not all A&Ws make their own root beer. “Some do ‘bag in a box,'” where a premixed concentrated syrup is merely diluted and fizzed. “There’s quite a big taste difference between that and draft root beer. Draft root beer is a smoother, less-carbonated beverage.” And, unlike the Pepsi soft drinks also sold here, and the A&W you buy in stores, A&W draft root beer is made from cane sugar, rather than high-fructose corn syrup. O’Brien won’t go so far as to say it’s good for you, but it won’t kill you either. (The original recipe invented by Roy Allen in 1919 was ditched a long time ago–it “was made from sassafras and other stuff we now know is carcinogenic.”)
O’Brien trusts the day-to-day operations to his manager Ashley Humphrey, who began working here as a high-school freshman sixteen years ago. It’s nearly a year-round job for her. After closing on December 11, she’ll spend another two weeks cleaning. “In early February, I’ll start looking at our hiring needs.” She puts a lot of thought into training employees. “For about 90 percent of them, it’s their first job anywhere, so I’m not just training them to flip burgers, I’m getting them used to a work environment.” She’ll supervise thirty to forty employees a season, mostly high school or college kids. “We don’t send them out to carhop” until they know how to cook everything on the menu. Then, when they’re ready, they get the customer service training: “I try to explain: you have to be bubbly,” says Humphrey. It didn’t come naturally to her–“I’m more introverted.” She tells them they don’t have to really be bubbly–they just have to act like it when carhopping.
She herself still carhops, and through the years, she says, she’s become more of an extrovert because of it. Not extroverted enough to be in a photo though. “Come on, who wants to be in it?” O’Brien asked as photographer Adrian Wylie set up an outdoor shot. Turning to his manager he specified, “Ashley?” She shooed O’Brien outside and told him it was his moment.
Dexter A&W Drive-In, 8220 Dexter-Chelsea Rd., 426-4427. Daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. until December 11, reopens March 1. awrestaurants.com
This article has been edited since it was published in the Fall 2016 Community Observer. The spelling of Coley O’Brien’s name has been corrected.