July 7, 1996
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 &
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
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."