Simonton Lake Drive-in finds success in root beer, hard work

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By: Marshall V. King

Sarah Welliver/Flavor 574

A drive-in restaurant that makes its own root beer never went out of style, but it is harder to find than in 1964.

On the north side of Elkhart, Simonton Lake Drive-in is nearing the end of its 50th season.

On Sept. 26, the Hoff family will close the restaurant at 51602 S.R. 19 for the winter. When it opens in the spring, Jason and Amanda Hoff will be the third generation of the family to own and operate the stand.

In 1964, it was probably novel to be able to roll down your window and press a button to place a food order to someone who wasn’t standing within earshot. This summer, Jason Hoff has replaced buttons at 15 of the 39 stations that are still part of the business.

He left computer programming to take over the business from his parents, Rick and Roni Hoff. Before them, Orville “Bud” and Helen Hoff had operated the stand. They purchased it a few years after it opened as an A&W stand. In the 1970s, they ditched the franchise and went independent.

The menu looks much as it did back then. “America has grown up on burgers,” Jason said. Most people order french fries, though onion rings and fried mushrooms are popular. Corn dogs, coney dogs and ice cream — both soft-serve and hand-dipped — are available. You can also get salads and grilled chicken, which is getting more popular, he said.

A hand-pattied burger went on the menu this year and off the grill, it’s just a really good burger on a soft, white bun.

The Hoffs still make root beer every day they’re open. Sugar, syrup and flavors go into a vat. A new chiller cools the syrup and soda water. On a busy day they go through two batches — about 400 gallons. In addition to a frosty mug, you can get a keg of Simonton Lake Drive-in root beer. During the height of graduation open-house season, they had 15, five-gallon kegs in the community and they often sell half-gallon or gallon amounts to customers.

The Hoffs train their teenage staff members how to do take-and-serve orders and how to clean. “What is key is you’ve got to be consistent,” Jason said.

He locks the employees’ cell phones away while they’re working and tries to teach them how to work hard. He started washing dishes standing on a milk crate at age 8 because he wanted to be with his dad at the stand. Now he’s often there working up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

How do you stay open 50 years?

A member of the family is usually at the stand if it’s open. They work hard to keep up the maintenance on an old building and property. They offer a good value, food and some nostalgia. “Nostalgia is why everybody comes here,” he said.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t making changes. Classic cars, souped up cars and four-by-four trucks have special nights at the restaurant. The owners give away root beer via Facebook. The stand’s website is better than many restaurant’s because he left a computer programming job to take this over. The carhops don’t use roller skates (they tried for a few years), but they do carry iPods with Square readers that can accept credit card payments on the spot.

The Hoffs will close the stand soon and focus on the family’s corn maze along U.S. 12. The day after the stand closes, Jason and Amanda Hoff will celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary.

They met at the drive-in when she was an employee. Two of their three children share the birthday with their anniversary.

It’s a family business. Their children may someday work there, just as Jason and Rick have. “This is our livelihood,” Jason said.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

Next week’s column will highlight three local eateries marking 30 years of business this month.

If you go
What:
Simonton Lake Drive-in
Final day of 50th season:
Sept. 26
Where:
51602 S.R. 19, Elkhart
Details:
Cash and credit accepted; Carhops bring food on trays, but there is also picnic table seating; Classic car night is Tuesday, specialty car on Wednesday and four-by-four vehicles on Thursday.

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