Samantha Preshong turns on a neon light Thursday at Farmingdale’s Hi-Hat Drive In restaurant as customers parked under the canopy eat their orders. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy Buy this Photo

FARMINGDALE — Once a staple of American culture, the drive-in restaurant could offer respite for Maine residents looking to eat a meal in the presence of others while social distancing.

Two central Maine drive-ins said car-hop service has offered a unique option during the coronavirus outbreak and helped community members gather at a safe distance and help keep vital revenues up during an uncertain period for small businesses.

Last month, Gov. Janet Mills ordered dining rooms at restaurants to close and recommended the cancellation of all gatherings of more than 10 people, forcing central Maine eateries to transition to delivery and takeout service. Some restaurant owners told the Kennebec Journal that serving takeout was a stopgap measure to gain some revenue while trying to keep employees on or stay financially afloat altogether.

According to the University of Michigan, drive-in restaurants emerged in the 1920s, after World War I, when more people started driving automobiles. Their popularity skyrocketed in the 1950s, as they were popular with teens, and maintained that popularity through the 1970s. As highways were built, drivers opted for those roadways, bypassing drive-ins and forcing surviving drive-in chains to transition to drive-thru restaurants. Now, only a few remain in Maine.

Ben Laflin, owner of Farmingdale’s Hi-Hat Drive In and Pancake House, said the restaurant opened more than 50 years ago as Ernie’s Drive-In and the restaurant’s dining room and current name came with new ownership a few years later. Laflin, who has owned and operated the restaurant since 2013 with his family, said the restaurant transitioned to a community gathering place, rather than a drive-in restaurant.

“People like to go out and get the experience of meeting with the community members,” he said. “It’s about the environment and culture in the restaurant.”

Doug Stark, 63, of Windsor, took advantage of the car hop Thursday. He said he remembered visiting Ernie’s Drive-In years ago, coming for the now-classic cars and staying for the food.

As the drive-in’s popularity faded out, Stark said he continued a standing family get-together every Friday inside the restaurant. That meeting could be relocated in the parking lot for drive-in when the weather improves.

“We see everybody we know so it’s a real social (occasion),” he said. “We’re all missing each other.”

Stark said he remembers when he bought a new Pontiac station wagon in 1989 and tried to give some of his younger relatives a drive-in experience at Hi-Hat.

“I pulled in and they started getting out of the car,” he said, adding that the kids opted for the air conditioning inside rather than eating in the hot car. “They don’t have the nostalgia that I do.”

Samantha Preshong, left, lifts a carhop tray to the window of Sonny James’ truck on March 20, at Farmingdale’s Hi-Hat Drive In restaurant. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The drive-in portion of the restaurant has accounted for about half of Hi-Hat’s revenue during the outbreak, Laflin said. Prior to the outbreak, the restaurant offered car-hop service, but rarely advertised it.

“In the last three or four years, we haven’t been putting the sign out,” he said. “Most people didn’t want to eat breakfast in the car.”

Laflin said the old-fashioned baskets have returned for car hop services and now all waitresses are delivering food with gloves on. Stark said he was glad drive-in service was back so he could visit with the employees and eat his “comfort food.”

“I am really pleased that they figured out a way to keep things going,” he said. “The employees here are like friends; I want to see them.”

Anderson Houston, manager of Fast Eddie’s in Winthrop, said customers have even used the restaurant’s drive-in to meet up with their families in a responsible manner.

“We have customers even coming in and practicing social distancing and parking a couple of spaces away from their parents or grandparents,” she said.

Houston said restaurant owners decided to remain open after observing a lack of restaurant options in town, seeing it as an opportunity to serve the community, even though revenue could be lower than normal.

“We were looking at the community access to food and we could make it work,” she said. “It’s a challenge but it’s something we’re willing to do.”

Houston said business has been healthy during the first few weeks of the limitations. She said her staff has been rolling with the punches, installing Plexiglas over the take-out windows and wearing gloves for each new order.

Samantha Preshong carries meals Thursday from behind the counter at Farmingdale’s Hi-Hat Drive In restaurant to customers parked outside. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Mike Laplante, Farmingdale’s assistant fire chief, met with a fellow department member at Hi-Hat on Sunday. He said the department has had an unofficial tradition of meeting at the restaurant on Sunday for more than 15 years, a tradition that has been interrupted by social distancing recommendations.

“I remember times we’ve had 20 people sitting there,” he said. “It’s not the same nowadays.”

Laplante said, when the weather improves, drive-in service could potentially replace the department’s dine-in tradition. For now, he said, a small group of department members will order take out and return to the fire station and eat with each other at a safe distance.

Samantha Preshong delivers a meal to Mary Wubderlich, who ate in a car Thursday at Farmingdale’s Hi-Hat Drive In restaurant with her parents, Philip and Valerie Wubderlich. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Philip Wubderlich, of Oakland, enjoyed a meal in his car at Hi-Hart with his wife, Valerie, and daughter Mary before dropping Valerie off at work. He said he and his family have missed being able to sit down in restaurants, especially the Hi-Hat which they visit two or three times a week.

“I always liked the pancakes or I get a cheese omelette,” Philip Wubderlich said. “It’s extremely important to support local businesses.”

Laflin said Hi-Hat was getting a healthy amount of take-out service as well, but he was still looking into stimulus opportunities to help keep employees on the payroll.

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