Tom Evanoff started off his career in retail at a young age. His parents owned Evans Department Store in Wisconsin, which was started as Evanoff Five & Dime by his grandparents in the 1940s.
Evanoff’s dad’s rule was that, as soon as you could tie your shoes, you were old enough to work. Evanoff couldn’t wait to start working so he could earn his own money, at the grand rate of 10 cents an hour.
“Candy bars were 10 cents back then, so that meant that I could buy a candy bar for every hour I worked,” laughed Evanoff.
Evanoff worked with his dad at their store until his father decided to retire. Rather than asking his son to stay in the family business, he realized that downtown department stores were a dying breed and encouraged him to move on to something else.
To help him figure out what he wanted to do with his career, Evanoff’s wife Mary asked him what sort of things he liked and then answered her own question with another one.
“Pizza or computers?” she posed as his options.
Evanoff decided to go with both and ended up working in Dallas, Tex., at a corporate store for Cici’s Pizza chain. When he realized that he wanted to move his family back to Two Rivers, Wis., he looked for the closest Cici’s Pizza and found one in Rochester, Minn. He ended up purchasing the restaurant and running it for five years.
During his time at Cici’s Pizza, Evanoff became friends with Rochester native, Steve Wernimont, the owner of the Culver’s restaurant right across the parking lot from Cici’s. After a time, Wernimont sold his restaurant, and Evanoff decided that he was also ready for a change. They knew that they wanted to stay in the restaurant business, and the A&W in Spring Valley just happened to be up for sale.
Evanoff and Wernimont started talking to retiring owners Mark and Kathy Simpson and decided to take the plunge into co-ownership.
“It’s been here over 60 years. It’s a classic,” Evanoff said. “Mark and Kathy did a great job building the business.”
At the end of October, Evanoff and Wernimont officially took ownership of the Spring Valley A&W Drive-In. “We picked a good year to come in late because the weather cooperated. We were still serving outside in November,” Evanoff commented. “We got to get a good start at learning the ropes.”
Both Evanoff and Wernimont, who has family in Spring Valley, have been spending a lot of time at the A&W since they purchased it. Both live in Rochester, but Evanoff is hoping to move to Chatfield in the spring of 2017 to be closer to the restaurant. His wife and daughters still live in Wisconsin, to allow his middle daughter to graduate from her high school before they join him in Chatfield.
A&W was first established in 1919 and is coming up on its 100 year anniversary in 2019. “It’s a good brand,” Evanoff said. There are around 400 restaurants in the U.S., with even more than that established internationally.
Evanoff and Wernimont plan to keep the A&W open all winter long and are adding soups and chili to the menu in light of that change. They were able to add their drive-in to the snowmobile map as a stop for snowmobilers.
“It’s a nice classic brand. I really like our burgers,” said Evanoff, who spends his fair share of time cooking in the kitchen along with Wernimont. “The drive-in is what really make this fun, though.” Evanoff also appreciates the fact that all of the root beer is made in-house.
The new co-owners will continue to work on tweaking the menu for local taste and will slowly be upgrading equipment in the kitchen. “We’re going to keep it rolling and build it up,” Evanoff commented. The special events that have traditionally been held at the A&W, such as the car shows, cruise night, and more, will still be a staple there.
Evanoff and Wernimont look forward to getting to know the people in Chatfield and the surrounding areas as they run the A&W Drive-In over the coming years.