Denfeld News

July 7, 1996
Duluth News Tribune

West End Icon
Duluth's last drive-in serves side of tradition with burgers

It's a hot, sticky night -- a rare treat for Duluth and a great night for an ice cream float.

The drive-in is hopping.

"Char-basket! Hunter burger! Two fries!" Mat Bartig, 19, shouts orders to the cooks as he fills mugs with frothy, ice-cold root beer. Amid the excitement, Mat's curly hair swings across his shoulders. A broad smile rarely leaves his face.

But it's just work, he insists. Just another job.

Here at A & Dubs -- Duluth's first and now last drive-in -- it's really more. It's family, friends. The hangout. It's neighborhood, a true West End icon. And it's tradition.

Mat probably will realize all that someday, perhaps decades from now when his own son is working the counter at A & Dubs.

That's the way it happened for Mat's dad. Dave Bartig poured root beer here in the 1960s and '70s. He fell in love here and later married an A & Dubs cook. Today, two of his sons work the same job he did. A third waits in the wings, grinning knowingly when asked about the day he, too, will be old enough to take his place behind the counter.

"This place is high school for us," Dave said outside the drive-in, his arm draped across his wife's shoulders. "It was the place to hang out when Julie and I were in high school. The East End had the London Inn. The West End had A & Dubs. This is the heart of our neighborhood. This was always the place."

A & Dubs has changed little since it was built by Lloyd and Shirley Tillman and opened as an A & W in 1948.

James and Lois Kent took over in 1959 and remained affiliated with the national restaurant chain until 1973, the year A & W decided to can its root beer and sell it in stores. That was also the year they insisted all their franchises use the same menus. Mama Burgers and Teen Burgers were in. The Kents' homemade barbecue sauce and popular cole slaw would have to go.

But they didn't. The Kents counted on the loyalty of their customers and decided to go it alone. They changed the name of the restaurant slightly, stuck with the familiar brown-and-orange color scheme and stood by their menu, which has always been painted on wooden boards and hung outside the building.

"We were able to keep our niche. We still have something unique to offer," said Sandy Hantz, who with her husband, Syl, took over A & Dubs from her parents in 1978. "It's still a mom-and-pop place. We don't have a fancy building and we're definitely off the beaten track."

But A & Dubs is tradition. It's almost like a habit. Like the owners who have passed the business from one generation to the next or like the employees who work the same jobs as their parents, people just keep coming back to A & Dubs Drive-In.

"We've tried lots of places but no one has the good food like here. There just isn't anyplace like this anymore," said Brian Ronding, a loyal customer since the 1950s. He was at the drive-in recently with his polished 1953 Ford, because hey, some things never change.

"We used to always park in the front so your friends would see you and you could show off your car," said Ronding, who was parked about as close to the restaurant and to busy West Third Street as possible.

"I hung out here when I was a teen-ager," said Ed Niemi, a Morgan Park resident who first came to A & Dubs 15 or 20 years ago. "I thought I had a fast car and this was the place to take it. I still come here today because you can still see the good-looking carhops."

In the old days, landing a job as a carhop was about as cool as landing a spot on the cheerleading squad. The job had social status. By 1950s standards, you were somebody.

Today, being a carhop just means you have a job you love, say the women who learn quickly to keep track of the mugs and to protect the food-filled trays by walking through doorways backward.

"Everybody that's here loves their job," said Sandy Lund, who's been hanging trays on partially closed car windows for 13 years. "They keep coming back. They don't quickly give up their job. I can't ever leave it. Someday, I'll be here waiting on cars with a walker."

"It's only tough when it's hot outside," said Deann Dieryck, 19, a carhop for four summers. "People get crabby when it gets hot. They sit in their cars and get mad if you don't wait on them right away."

The job also can be tough when it's cold. Before 1973, when a small, heated seating area was added to the front of the restaurant, carhops used to huddle near a space heater outside to keep warm between cars.

But it never gets too cold. The drive-in closes in mid-October and opens again in mid-April.

"In the West End and West Duluth, we mark our calendars by A & Dubs," said longtime customer Cori Netland. "We ask a month ahead of time when they're going to reopen and we dread the day they close. That's always a sad day in the fall when all we can do is look forward to spring."

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