Thousands of Minnesotans are flocking to drive-ins to be served a rare sit-down meal in the midst of a state order shuttering restaurant dining rooms to slow the coronavirus outbreak.
Minnetonka Drive In, a restaurant bathed in nostalgia complete with energetic carhops who bring food and beverage to driver’s-side windows, has for several weeks been drawing customers by the droves who are hungry for a burger, fried chicken or a malt with a side of a trip down memory lane.
What state regulators have yet to figure out is whether this fashion of eating out violates Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order banning dining on the premises.
“I’ve never seen it so crazy,” said Dave Bennyhoff, who owns the seasonal restaurant on Shoreline Drive in Spring Park that his father started in the early 1960s. “The amount of food we’re going through is just incredible; online, telephone orders. The lot is just packed.”
It’s no mystery to Bennyhoff, who has worked at the drive-in since he was 9 years old, why this surge in business is coming even as spring got off to a largely chilly start. Regardless, it is still keeping all 40 of his car stalls full from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Now, it seems, people are looking for a little bit of normalcy” at one of the few places in Minnesota providing on-site dining, Bennyhoff, 66, said.
The Minnesota Department of Health, however, said it is still trying to sort out whether the drive-in a block or so off Lake Minnetonka and others around the state are abiding by the executive order banning on-site dining.
“Our legal, food establishment regulators and infection control teams are looking at this,” department spokesman Doug Schultz said Monday afternoon.
“Part of the order … looks like the practice [of drive-in service and dining] would be allowed,” Schultz said, “but other parts of the order, for example, do not allow service ‘on the premises.’ ”
For his part, Bennyhoff said Sunday, he has been in daily contact with the health department and is strictly enforcing social distancing practices by staff and patrons.
Mary Ratzlaff of St. Louis Park has been stopping by Minnetonka Drive In regularly for more than a quarter-century, said, “During these times, it is somewhat comforting to be able to go outside of your home and have a meal.
“It gives one — at least me — a sense of normalcy in a time when nothing is at all normal.”
Ratzlaff and her husband, Kevin, were back again Saturday to the drive-in, a favorite gathering place for classic car buffs.
Sure enough, a 1967 Corvette pulled up nearby, and Kevin “really wanted to get out and ask [the driver] what year it was and just talk to him about his car,” but social distancing restrictions kept her husband seated and out of reach of the sporty ride, Mary said.
That not-so-close encounter, she said, showed her that “you are [eating out] but not really able to connect with people in the manner that you would under normal circumstances.”
Like establishments all across Minnesota, Minnetonka Drive In’s inside seating area is closed. Also, its picnic grounds out back were soon shut down after customers were congregating too closely with their takeout meals and ice cream, or merely stopping to rest while biking or walking along the adjacent Dakota Trail.
All employees, from those in the kitchen to carhops, wear gloves and are washing their hands constantly, Bennyhoff said. For customers, ordering and paying online is the best way to go, especially for eating in their car.
“There are trays on the stands to swing out to your car window,” he said. “The carhop sets your food on the tray. If you pay online, you don’t even have to roll down your window and pay.”
Bennyhoff said he and his wife and business partner, Deb, were in Arizona last month when they heard about the health risks of the coronavirus taking aim at the drive in, which has now employed four generations in his family.
“Me and Deb talked constantly” upon their return home, he said. “We were in here for a full week wiping everything down. We’d say to each other, ‘What do you think? Should we stay closed or should we open?’ ”
He said one strong validation from customers that his business sense was on the mark is seeing how generous they are with the carhops.
“The people are tipping so crazy wild,” Bennyhoff said. “I think that for a lot of people it’s gotten to them as a heartfelt thing, some compassion” for the servers.
“This is kind of a good thing for boyfriends and girlfriends,” he added. “And it takes married couples back to the ’60s and ’70s, when you could take your sweetheart out for a date and be eating and smooching.”