Rachel Mann-Rosenfeldt takes a big step on the day before we meet. She adds a tattoo to her left leg – not a teensy rose or wimpy butterfly, but a sketch that covers much of her outer calf.
It is not Rachel’s first tattoo, but this time the indelible ink freezes time in a most personal way: In front of a green-blue sedan with tail fins is a young woman carrying lunch on a tray. She wears a hair bow, halter top, pleated skirt and apron.
On the apron is one word – Charlie’s – and that explains it all.
Rachel and brother Carl Mann were weaned on Charlie’s, a drive-in restaurant that parents Charlie and Suzanne Mann bought in 1965 along Highway 15, which links New London and Appleton. The business skirts the edge of Hortonville, population 2,711, in Outagamie County. It is the oldest family-owned business in town.
“We were 23, and the kids working for us were 18,” Suzanne recalls. “It was hard to crack the whip,” and the couple had not operated a restaurant before using inheritance for downpayment on this one.
The couple learned, persevered and supplemented the drive-in’s seasonal income with her work as a dental hygienist and his as a laborer. They lived onsite, adding a mobile home and swing set to the property, until 1972.
“It started as an A&W at a time when about all you had to do was put up their sign and buy their root beer” to fulfill the franchise agreement, Carl explains.
Restaurant staff seemed like family, doubling as babysitters and playmates during slow times. “I kept calling a cook ‘Grandma,’ even though she’d tell me she wasn’t,” Rachel says.
She and Carl were kids who would distribute free root beer tickets door to door at the start of a new season of business, in spring. They learned every part of the business and since 2005 are Charlie’s co-owners, directing a staff of 10 at the height of summer. Some are the children or grandchildren of former employees.
The drive-in remains a place to showcase snazzy cars, meet the neighbors and revisit a vintage method of dining. In the menu are longtime family secrets that include the barbecue (like a Sloppy Joe, but without the tomato taste), triple-ground burgers (with a confidential blend of spices) and sauces called The Works and Horsey.
Classic car buffs – especially during car shows in Iola, 30 miles northwest – have long found their way to Charlie’s. So have comedian Bill Murray, while vacationing in Door County, and country crooner Keith Urban, while motorcycling during a break from Country USA concerts in Oshkosh.
“Our customers are people who don’t want to stop at McDonald’s,” Suzanne says. “They are braver – they are willing to give us a try.”
With the food comes music over loudspeakers, and Elvis is a natural match for the drive-in era.
In 2007, at their mom’s encouragement, Carl agreed to impersonate Elvis on the 30th anniversary of the singer’s death. She is a longtime Elvis fan whose car announces that fact. Her son was hesitant but a good sport; now appreciative customers expect a repeat performance every August.
“He walks around, shaking hands, and his wife (Tori) dresses up like Marilyn Monroe and sings,” Rachel says. Carhops wear “classic white Marilyn halter dresses” and Elvis music blares.
Word got around, and now Carl also impersonates Elvis for senior citizens centers to class reunions, and in his wardrobe are sparkly knit jumpsuits.
“He needs extras,” Rachel says. “Sometimes he works while he’s Elvis, and if he splatters root beer …”
Her brother is a Navy veteran, and she was in the Navy Reserves. Their restaurant income is supplemented in creative ways, face painting to fish lure tying.
“The word I keep hearing from others is ‘icon,’ ” their mother says, regarding the second-generation business. Long-ago customers return for homecoming, on their wedding day, with their sick relatives.
“Some of them walk around the building with tears in their eyes,” Rachel says. “They bring their Dad for one last” burger or black cow, which is ice cream and root beer whipped together.
For more about Charlie’s Drive-in, 806 W. Main St., Hortonville: www.charliesdrivein.com, 920-779-6753. The restaurant is open daily until late September, and Tuesday is Classic Car Night.
Rare is the Wisconsin drive-in restaurant that stays open when autumn arrives. Celebrating a half-century of year-round business this year is The Spot in Kenosha. “We have a good product and try to not change anything,” says owner Chuck DuBois. “That’s a big part of it.”
His parents opened The Spot, 2117 75th St., as a seasonal endeavor in 1945. For more: www.spotdrivein.com, 262-654-9294.
By the time most of you read this, I will have talked about drive-in restaurants at a Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance event at Kendall College, Chicago. “Road Food: Exploring the Midwest One Bite at a Time” was the topic.
The nonprofit alliance meets periodically to discuss what Midwest people eat and why. Members pay attention to unique food traditions. The cost to join is $35 per person or $50 for a family.
For more: www.greatermidwestfoodways.com, 847-432-8255.