AKRON, Ohio - Through a window in the door of Swenson's Drive-In Restaurant, a curb server peered across the asphalt parking lot. With the movement of a car pulling in, Jason Bonezzi ran at top speed to the car, waiting to take the order of the hungry customer who had not yet turned off the engine of his car.
"Welcome to Swenson's," said Bonezzi, a smile across his face. "How can I help you?"
Bonezzi is one of of the curb servers whose job is to take orders for customers at their cars, dash back into the restaurant building, give the orders to the cooks and fly back with hot food.
Swenson's Drive-In Restaurant has been running food to its customers since Wesley "Pop" Swenson opened his first location at the crossroads of S. Hawkins and W. Market Streets in Akron. From that first restaurant, Swenson's has expanded to six more in Summit, Stark and Cuyahoga counties.
Its signature dishes revolve around hamburgers, french fries and milk shakes. There are other items on the menu, but the company has stayed away from what its management calls "trendy" items.
"Burgers, fries and shakes," said Dave Lilich, Swenson's corporate manager. "You don't fix something that works."
Inside the restaurant itself, which customers generally do not see because they order from their vehicles and are served in their vehicles, there is a hum of activity. The outside doors are constantly being opened and closed as curb servers sprint to the next car pulling. Bonezzi and the other servers have items on the menu memorized and can spout out prices as if they were reading them.
One customer from Chicago, who had heard about Swenson's in Akron, wheeled into the parking lot.
"I thought there was a fire in the place," he laughed, "when I saw this guy come running out of the building." The curb server was running to the Chicagoan who said he had heard about Swenson's burgers. "Naw, that ain't no fire," he said his friend said to him. "They're just coming to get your order."
The fire in the restaurant is at the grill where burgers sizzle under the sure hands of several cooks who keep up with the traffic. In the meantime, curb servers are dashing through the doors shouting the orders to the cooks, who are turning hamburgers, emptying baskets of French fried potatoes from the oil and spreading on the condiments. It is an assembly line for the hungry motorists waiting outside.
With the running curb servers, Swenson's seems a throwback to a time when drive-in restaurant were plentiful. They are not in abundance these days, but there is a romantic quality about them. At Swenson's, couples on a date night often pull in, order a meal and enjoy it while perhaps holding hands in their cars. It was the thing to do in high school. For many well out of their high school years, it still works.
Jack Smith and Pauline Jones are in their mature years and they laughed about their lunch which was going on in Smith's Jaguar. In the luxury sedan, they giggled as if they were high school kids on a date. Swenson's sees all kinds of vehicles pull in for lunch or dinner. Even limousines, said Lilich, who recalled times when celebrities pulled in, rolled down the windows of the back seats and ordered burgers, shakes and fries.
"Even the limousines pull in," laughed Lilich, who has worked at Swenson's for 17 years. He started during his high school years when after school, he handled the cooker where the fries were hot. At Swenson's, they are still hot, nicely complimenting the burgers and the milk shakes.