The Spring Valley A&W has been a staple of the community since it opened in 1956, then owned by Roger and Marge Simpson. Their son and his wife, Mark and Kathy Simpson, purchased the business in 1987 and ran it until they retired in 2017 when Tom Evanoff purchased it.
For the past five years, Evanoff has enjoyed sharing the nostalgia of the drive-in, which first drew him to the business and getting to know the community.
“The people of the town here were just fantastic. I got on the board of the historical society and learned a lot about the town,” Evanoff shared. “It’s a great area. And Mark and Kathy were really gracious when we took over, and shared the history of the place. We tried to keep that going as much as we could.”
When Evanoff closed the doors for the season on November 28, 2022, he was already making plans for the 2023 season, as he had just signed a 10-year contract with the A&W franchise, but a Christmas-time phone call would change the future for both him and the business.
“Brad Grafe called me a couple days before Christmas and said he had heard I was maybe in the market to sell. I’m getting older, so had considered the possibility of selling and I’m always willing to hear an offer. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Evanoff explained. “It would have been nice if it would have stayed a restaurant, but it is really hard to do drive-in’s anymore. I had a hard time just getting food out. The drive-in model, as novel and fun as it is, I just don’t know how I could have continued it.”
While Evanoff enjoyed the five years he owned the A&W, he shared that the last couple of years had been tough as an owner.
“In 2020, we were fine because we didn’t have to deal with the dining room and everything was outside. It was actually a fantastic year for us,” Evanoff explained.
The tides changed in 2021 when employers were left to compete with unemployment benefits, which meant paying higher than average wages and labor shortages.
“I was left with a crew of 14 and 15-year-olds and no manager, just me. So that year was brutal. To try to run a drive-thru with 12 people was insane,” Evanoff said. “The problem was that with the labor laws in Minnesota, they (the staff) had to be home by 9 p.m. on school nights, which meant I had to close at 8 p.m. if I wanted any help closing up. That really cut into sales and made things pretty tough.”
According to Evanhoff, he was considering changing the business into a drive-thru, as it would elevate labor issues and allow him to get food out faster.
Labor wasn’t the only shortage Evanoff has been dealing with, either. Much of the food supply and restaurant supplies had been in short order, too.
Even through the struggles, Evanoff shared that he will miss the A&W and it’s ambience.
“The car hopping was great, to see people light up when you put the tray on the car,” Evanoff reminisced. “And meeting people who worked here years and years ago. They’d tell us stories about what it used to be like and some would even have pictures. It just changed. Drive-ins used to be a hangout and now people just want their food in five minutes so they can leave. The whole lifestyle has changed.”
Cruise Night car shows were also a highlight for Evanoff, “I spent more time outside staring at the cars than working inside during the car shows. And having Elvis here; we just had a lot of fun with stuff outside,” he shared.
To those missing those drive-in days, they can visit the Spring Valley Historical Society where Evanoff donated numerous nostalgic items and pictures.