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Pandemic revitalizes drive-in movies, restaurants

MISHAWAKA, Ind. - As many businesses are going through hard times right now, others are gaining more customers during this pandemic.

Drive-in restaurants used to be thought of as a dying business model but now they’re thriving under the state’s strict social distancing guidelines.

The concept is quite simple, you drive in, push the server button, order your food, and eat it right from inside your car.

Drive-ins are normally known for their good food and easy-going nature but because of this pandemic, more people are choosing to eat this way than dining in at their favorite restaurant.

“Wery busy. Lots of to-go orders so it’s good,” Adam Carroll, the owner of Bonnie Doon Drive-In said. “People are just excited to get out.”

Carroll tells ABC57 they normally open their doors the first day of spring and close at the end of October but this year they got a late start.

Through several recessions and now a pandemic, the 82-year old business shows us it can thrive through it all.

Especially as one of the few drive-ins left in St. Joseph County.

Now the staff is taking precautions like wearing gloves and masks and limiting interactions with the customers.

With dine-in and sit-down seating closed, they are just open to drive-in customers.

Carroll says the pandemic is definitely helping business, but that he isn’t sure if this surge will last.

“It’s hard to tell because a lot of places aren’t open right now so I don’t know if we’re getting some of their business or just... I hope it keeps coming,” he said.

There are 20 car spots at Bonnie Doon and Carroll said they are usually full throughout the day

The draw for drive-ins is that you can order and eat right from the comfort of your own car.

It’s social distancing to the max and brings a level of comfort that regular restaurants just aren’t giving during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are so busy right now that a lot of times we’re not even taking call-ins. We can’t even answer the phone just because we don’t have the ability to handle everyone that is already there so we don’t have the ability to take any more call-ins,” Jason Hoff, owner of Simonton Lake Drive-In in Elkhart said.

Simonton Lake Drive-In has been in the Hoff family for over 50 years.

While business has been good for them over the last couple of years, the coronavirus pandemic made their small eatery a hot spot.

There is minimal interaction with just one worker helping a customer at a time and they have gloves and a mask on.

Sanitization efforts have also increased.

Hoff says they have even brought in more staff to accommodate for the rise in business and he expects it will continue to stay busy once businesses fully reopen.

“I don’t think we’re going to have an issue with being slow because everybody can just stay in their car, don’t have the risk of spreading anything through the air through air conditioning or from utensils or from chairs or door handles or really anything you could have risks if you go to restaurants. I think until things change, we will continue to be busy even when everything opens back up,” Hoff said.

But it’s not just drive-in restaurants seeing an uptick in customers, but drive-in movies as well.

As movie theaters are ordered closed, drive-in theaters are making a comeback.

The dying business model is now flourishing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Drive-in movies are rare to find these days and we’re lucky to be able to have even one in our area.

But that may change going forward.

“The last couple of years it was a little bit laid back, wasn’t as busy as it was years before,” David Kinney, owner of Tri-Way Drive-In Theatre. “I think part of it is yeah we are really busy, the other part, we’re trying to adjust our concessions stand to stay with the guidelines of the COVID-19 crisis and it has been quite an adjustment.”

Even at 50% capacity, they are selling out at some of the screens, which Tri-Way has four of.

They have also taken social distancing precautions between cars and folks standing in line for food.

But will this surge last? Will there be a revival of drive-in movies? The theater’s owner isn’t too sure.

“We’ll have to see as the summer progresses what the results are going to be,” he said. “I wish I had a crystal ball but I’m really hoping that it does.”

South Bend officials held their own drive-in last Friday and even that was packed.

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