PEKIN — In the middle of a warm May afternoon, a muffled voice rang out over the speakers inside Cranwill's Rootbeer Stand and Drive-In.
"Three chili cheese dogs and a root beer," came the order over the speakers.
A few minutes later several construction workers ambled inside and relayed their lunch orders, following a template that quickly becomes familiar to anyone that spends some time in Cranwill's. Every order contained some variation of chili cheese dogs and a large frosty mug of root beer.
So it goes at Cranwill's, one of the few independently-owned, drive-in style eateries left in central Illinois along with Lou's Drive-In. Sonic, a chain drive-in, has one location on Sterling Avenue in Peoria that is owned by the Kouri family.
Cranwill's exists almost as a place out of time. If it weren't for the style of vehicles pulling up for car-hop service and the presence of smart phones, it's easy to believe that customers are dining in a completely different decade. In fact, it was several decades ago that the Cranwill family took over the drive-in when Don and JoAnn Cranwill purchased the property in 1969. For many of those years, it was part of the A&W franchise, which itself was synonymous with drive-ins and root beers.
Don and JoAnn's children, Carla and Kirk Cranwill, have run the drive-in since 1996 and shepherded it into the modern day without losing the nostalgic charms that enchanted several generations of people in the Pekin area.
"A lot of them that come here now as adults came here as kids," Kirk Cranwill said. "We hear that all the time. We have people come in here that worked here in the '50s."
Forty car-hop stations dot the parking lot, though station Nos. 1 and 2 are now parking spaces for those who want to dine inside. On most weekend evenings in the summers, according to Carla, all of those stations will be filled with hungry customers while prospective eaters will idly drive back and forth on Second Street waiting for a spot to open up.
Lou's, a veritable institution in the Peoria dining scene because of its longevity under the ownership of the LaHood family, experiences similarly packed crowds when it opens every year on the last week of April. Current Lou's owner Laurie Halsey said the drive-in is routinely filled with customers across several generations that associate the experience in different ways, all while eating a chili dog and drinking a root beer.
"The older generation likes the car-hop service," Halsey said. "And for the younger kids, it's their hangout spot."
The younger generation often congregates at Lou's because their friends work at the drive-in. Halsey said she has more than 50 employees on the payroll for this summer, many of them high school-aged and a few in college whose summer breaks dovetail perfectly with the busy warmer season. Despite that number being an indicator of good business, it also means an added attention to training in the lead-up to opening day. Halsey had more than 30 new workers to train this spring, and it's never a given they'll be back the next year.
"I actually love when we have freshmen in high school come in because I know we'll have them for three or four years," Halsey said.
But the throwback quirks of a drive-in necessitate a thorough training for new employees. Fielding food orders from the car, ferrying them back to the kitchen and then carting the completed order back out to the car on a tray — in the middle of a frenzied dinner crowd — requires a certain choreography that needs to be practiced ahead of time. Meanwhile, the cramped quarters of a kitchen area that was built decades ago takes some adjustment.
"You have your spot in the kitchen, and you have that four-by-four location where you work and there's not much room," Halsey described.
At Cranwill's, Kirk has pushed the opening day to the middle of March, not just to capitalize on the handful of nice days that month but as a buffer zone for new employees to learn on the job before the hectic summer months arrive.
"We're trying to catch some bad weather on purpose," Kirk said.
Despite the constant staff turnover each year, the attraction at these drive-ins is the lack of change. Lou's has had the same chili recipe for its chili dogs since time immemorial, and the root beer machines at Cranwill's were built in the 1960s — which isn't advantageous when Kirk needs to replace one of the machine's outdated parts but produces root beer unlike any other modern machine.
There have been threats to both drive-ins. When Cranwill's was still under the A&W franchise name in the early 2000s, Kirk said that the company was pushing its franchisees to abandon the car-hop concept and build dining room spaces, a suggestion that trickled down to Cranwill's at the time. And Lou's was put up for sale at the end of the 2014 season.
But Kirk said Cranwill's is still performing well and estimated that sales have rebounded to pre-2008 recession numbers. Meanwhile, Halsey announced earlier this month that Lou's would expand to a second location that will be open year-round — in a property formerly occupied by a Sonic. It's a mountain of work to keep these drive-ins going, but Halsey said she's constantly repaid in gratitude by longtime customers.
"I have people thanking me daily for keeping it open," Halsey said.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.