Food & Drink Beep beep!

An entrepreneur's ephemera tells the story of the drive-in era

"I'd emptied out all of the file cabinets and was sitting there exhausted in a lump. You know how sometimes a notion comes in your head: It was get up and go look in that cabinet one more time. Well I did, and there was this little inch-and-a-half square picture on the bottom of the drawer. It's as if my mother was left in the drawer and she was saying, Help, help! I'm still in here. And the picture ended up on page 24."

Lou Ellen McGinley is talking about the process of sifting through her father's copious files, nearly 50 years worth of ephemera - photos, letters, cigar rings, advertisements, wax-paper hamburger bags, and brochures. In the mid '20s, Louie McGinley marketed and sold the TraCo tray, an ingenious "one-legged affair" that hooked over the side of automobiles to support hamburgers and milk shakes, and helped launch the era of drive-ins. This week McGinley will appear at Barnes & Noble and Pig Stand to talk about her new book, HONK for service, based on her father's life.

"I ended up writing a lot of long, boring text," McGinley says of her initial efforts to get Louie's story on paper, "but that's good. A person ought to do that about family because when you are gone you're gone and others don't know."

Working with a writer and a graphic designer, she whittled the words and images down to 226 pages of scrapbook-style illustrations and sparse prose, which she bashfully admits to having self-published. One would never know it from the quality of the book's paper and its well-balanced layout, just enough white space and fun imagery to pull the reader into McGinley's history without being overwhelming. The writing is a little sing-songy in places, but that's part of the charm. HONK is not only the history of a man and a tray, but also the story of America's love affair with cars and curbside dining. Of course, like a coy date, America didn't always know it was in love with the drive-in; sometimes it had to be coaxed.

In 1923, Louie and his brother Mack were unsuccessfully selling Buicks when Mack came up with the idea of a car tray. His original drawing, on green Goad Motor Company stationery, featured an oak tray, with an extendable leg that rested on the running board of the car. It was called the Auto Soda Server. By 1925, Louie was selling an aluminum version of the tray full-time, while Mack had sold his share in the invention and was working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

From the mid '20s to the early '70s, carhops brandished their TraCo trays at drive-ins around the country, earning tips from curbside diners by performing impromptu dances and gymnastics - such as leaping over the hood of the car with a full tray of food.

Four years later, Louie bought a Buick and set off across the country to evangelize the tray and the drive-in. Just as compelling as the old car and soda-fountain photos - in one, a throng of men in derbies and caps takes advantage of a one-cent sale at Walgreens - the brochures Louie created to sell curbside service, in bold '20s graphics, are some of the most interesting illustrations: "Over $4,000,000 a day is spent at soda fountains, are you getting yours?"

"My father wasn't inventing a franchise concept, he was saying, Here's this tray and some brochures on how to make money even if you start with nothing. People developed their own style."

Though it was flourishing in other parts of the country, in St. Louis, Missouri, Louie found the soda-fountain owners reticent to embrace curbside service. In fact, they told him there was no room for such an idea in all of St. Louis. "Missouri is the 'Show Me' state, so he had to open a restaurant for St. Louis to actually see what a drive-in was and how it worked in combination with indoor service," says McGinley.

Opened in 1930, the Parkmoor restaurant and drive-in became so popular for its great service and food - in one photo of an immaculate kitchen, a dapper Parkmoor chef cuts huge slabs of fresh beef into a meat grinder for 20-cent hamburgers - that Louie opened six more over the next 26 years.

Honk for Service: A man, a tray and the glory days of the drive-in
By Lou Ellen McGinley with Stephanie Spurr
Tray Days Publishing (2004)
$29.95 226 pages


6pm May 20
Pig Stand
1508 Broadway

3pm May 21
Barnes & Noble
12635 IH 10 West
Why did people love the drive-in so? "It was the family-friendly, casual, warm, and welcoming atmosphere," says McGinley. At the original drive-ins, people parked wherever they wanted, relaxed, and hung out, socializing with friends and cruising the scene longer than it took to eat their burger and milk shake. "Another thing that was fun," she adds, "was that the carhops worked entirely on tips. So they would get real creative; carhops went on roller skates and made their own satin suits. Getting the best tips wasn't just service - they performed." She mentions Johnnie Galveston, pictured in the book, who was able to hurdle over the front of a car with a full tray of food in his hand.

McGinley attributes the end of the drive-in era to several factors: fast-food stands, the economic reality that customer turnover is key to financial success, and the '60s, a period she jokingly refers to as "fraught with peril," when young people took advantage of that same relaxed atmosphere to blast their rock 'n' roll, drink, and take drugs, which eventually scared off the families.

But then she rushes to change the subject, proudly talking about what today's young chefs are doing with owner-operated restaurants as if they are her own children. She's more interested in the future than mourning the past. "I hate when old folks say, Ain't it awful it isn't like it used to be?"

By Susan Pagani

Scroll to read more Flavor articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.