July 23, 2014

[Retro Roadmap] "Lights On For Service": Root Beer Stands of New Jersey

  • By: Beth Lennon

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Mugs. Credit: Beth Lennon

Eating in the car may be a necessity for some busy commuters on-the-go, but to others the excuse to roll down the car window and have a tray of food delivered moments later by a friendly carhop at a root beer stand is an eagerly awaited summertime ritual.

The term “carhop” is thought to have originated back in the 1920s when a drive-in waiter/waitress would hop onto the running board of an incoming vehicle, thus claiming it as a customer. Nowadays, running boards are nonexistent, but you don’t have to worry about getting the attention of the uniformed carhops. Just pull into a numbered space under the corrugated metal awning and put your lights on when you’re ready to order from the menu posted prominently on every side of the building.

A few short minutes later a metal tray is cantilevered onto your partially lowered car window. Napkins are tucked neatly into the caps of glass salt and pepper shakers, perched next to heavy glass mugs of cold homemade root beer.

Crispy fries are a staple, eaten individually by toothpick or the fistful, and you can’t go wrong with a cheeseburger or hot dog to round out your meal. Once you’ve finished your meal, put your lights on again to signal that it is time to remove the tray and hand over the check.

Two of the last remaining root beer chains to offer carhop service to their drive-in restaurants are located in New Jersey. Open for over 50 years, these distinctive orange and black eateries offer modern families and patrons a nostalgic, tasty alternative to the conga line of cars wrapped around the ubiquitous fast food chains that can be found anywhere in the U.S.

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Exterior. Credit: Beth Lennon

Stewart’s Root Beer -- Burlington, New Jersey

A roadside landmark on Route 130, Stewart’s Root Beer in Burlington has been open since 1947. Current owner Kirk Xenakis and his sister Thea Malapetsas have run the seasonal stand since 1991, as their parents had since purchasing it from the original owners in 1970.

The building is partially obscured by the large awning that shades patrons from the glare of the sun or the drip of the rain while they eat in their cars. Once the cars pull away, however, the freshly painted orange and black stand shines, contrasting nicely with the clean white uniforms of the carhops.

Topping it off like a midcentury-inspired cherry on top of the sundae is a rare “sputnik” globe twinkling high above the roof of the building, beckoning diners to notice the restaurant and pull in for a quick bite.

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Interior. Credit: Beth Lennon

Though Stewart’s is a chain with over a dozen locations in the state, Xenakis believes the success of their restaurant can be attributed to consistency. They insist on high-quality food; everything is always cooked fresh and made to order. The service from the young carhops is attentive and the place is spic and span, but the thing that makes this location such a destination for loyal eaters is they know what to expect when they put their lights on for service.

“We have people tell us that their favorite sandwich tastes the same as it did 20 or 30 years ago or more,” he says. “Parents and grandparents come in now with their children and grandchildren and tell us they came in when they were young or dating. It’s a tradition.”

Stewart’s Root Beer
4524 U.S. 130
Burlington, NJ 08016

Weber’s Root Beer

Much like Stewart’s, the Weber’s “Superior Root Beer” stands originally started as a chain. Based in Oklahoma and popular in the Midwest with as many as 67 locations at their peak, there have always been three outlier locations in New Jersey since the 1950s.

Unfortunately, those numbers are changing quickly; as of this writing, the oldest location in Brooklawn (opened in the early 1950s) had closed permanently and was put up for auction. The good news: The two remaining locations are still open just a few miles away.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Pennsauken NJ Exterior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Weber’s -- Pennsauken, New Jersey

Opened in 1954, this Weber’s is a local landmark with its spinning “lollipop” sign and meticulously manicured flowers lining the busy roadway.

While the surrounding businesses and traffic have increased over the years, this Weber’s location has held its own, standing as a reminder of times when the pace of life was slightly less frantic, when the entire family could tumble into the car wearing whatever they like, and go out for a meal without breaking the bank.

Thirty-six numbered spaces are clearly designated on the meticulously clean parking lot, and their orange and black stand is repainted every season which runs from March through October. A gaggle of teenage carhops waits for you to flash your lights for service, and the ritual begins.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Pennsauken NJ Interior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Manager Tom Devereaux, who has worked at Weber’s for almost 30 years, says they too are sticklers for cleanliness, good food, and quick service. Famous for their tuna hoagie, they also sell their homemade root beer by the frosty mug (you can even get a gallon to go). All of the food is made to order, and they don’t use any heat lamps.

Weber’s Pennsauken
6019 Lexington Ave
Pennsauken, NJ 08110

Weber’s -- Stratford, New Jersey

Mae Komesaruk has owned the Stratford Weber’s since she and her husband opened it in 1959. Previous to their opening, she trained at the Brooklawn location and since then has also returned the favor by training the owners of the Pennsauken location. While her stand is open now, there is a specter of sadness as a large “For Sale” sign sits next to one of the many picnic tables that line the property.

Despite the looming sign, business goes on at this classic roadside stand as it has for upwards of 55 years. Root beer is made with the closely guarded secret recipe, trays are filled with burgers and fries, and cars pull up under the somewhat Space-Age inspired awnings. If you look closely, you’ll see an orange UFO shaped beacon high atop the restaurant, much like the sputnik at Stewart's.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Stratford NJ Exterior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Along with her husband (who passed away last year), Mae has worked at this Weber’s since the day it opened.

“I’m tired,” she admits. And after being in business for 55 years and counting, she’s justified in wanting to take some time for herself. “I hope that someone sees the potential of this place and buys it for that. It would break my heart to see it bought just to be torn down.”

As you see how the stand brightens up that corner of the Whitehorse Pike as the summer dusk sets in, you hope someone sees the potential and carries on the tradition -- for Mae and for the rest of us.

Weber’s Stratford
105 S White Horse Pike
Stratford, NJ 08084

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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