Dining out on a budget in the 50’s and 60’s involved jumping in the car and heading to the drive-in.
And you had lots of choices for food to be delivered to your car via roller-skate-wearing-carhop. For example, there was A&W. In Oklahoma, we had Sonic. And there was yet another chain in the Midwest that once had over 750 franchises: Dog n Suds.
People had cars. People got hungry. People couldn’t afford to spend much. That all added up to the need for drive-ins. And they could be found everywhere. A small town with a population of 5,000 or so might have three or four drive-ins doing a brisk business.
Reading all of that writing on the wall, two music teachers from the University of Illinois, Don Hamacher and Jim Griggs, decided in 1953 to get in on the fun. They opened a drive-in in Champaign and called it Dog n Suds. It was a hit, so much so that they were approached by a sweet old lady with a bank account full of cash to build her one just like it.
Hamacher and Griggs soon had a tiger by the tail. The time was perfect for franchised drive-ins, and Dog n Suds had a lot to offer potential entrepreneurs. They quit teaching and became restaurant magnates in short order.
Dog n Suds began springing up all over Illinois, as well as nearby Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. A rave review of their business plan in a trade magazine added to the furor, and by the 1960’s they had reached the southern United States. They were averaging fifteen new restaurants per month during the height of their success. By 1970, it seemed that every town big enough to have more than one stoplight also had a Dog n Suds.
We had one in Rogers, Arkansas in the early 1970’s. It was a simple affair, a small building with carport-covered areas for parking. Once you decided what you wanted (often it was a dog and suds), you pushed the button to let them know inside. Soon, a cute young lady would appear with a tray full of food that smelled heavenly. Life was good.
But unfortunately, a lot of sweet memories bit the dust in the 70’s. The economy took some seriously bad turns, and then there were those blasted Arabs and their oil embargo. The times were changing fast. We didn’t go to as many drive-ins as we used to.
The glory days for Dog n Suds were over. Instead of fifteen new restaurants opening each month, now they were closing. The founders sold out, and it appeared that Dog n Suds might well go the way of so many other beloved memories that we grew up with.
But a funny thing happened. Some Dog n Suds’ survived. The brand name had a fierce loyalty among its customers, and many restaurants weathered the storm. It was a curious case of the Dog n Suds name almost outlasting the Dog n Suds franchise.
Nowadays, Dog n Suds are down to, ironically, fifteen in number. But a new one was opened in 2007, in Norton Shores, Michigan. Many of the survivors have cashed in on the retro craze, with redesigns that provide old fashioned soda fountains. Who knows, the franchise may end up reinventing itself and thriving once again, like A&W did.
However, some Dog n Suds’ exist exactly as they did when their customers drove up in tank-sized cars, ordered a dog and suds for less than a dollar, and winked at the cute roller-skate-riding carhop as she placed the tray loaded with goodies on the rolled-down window.
Makes you feel good, doesn’t it?