ELKHART — Simonton Lake Drive-In has had the same root beer recipe for 50 years.
The restaurant opened for a fiftieth season March 18, one day before former owner Helen Hoff turns 84. Her grandson and current manager Jason Hoff said he thinks the drive-in will see another 50 years.
Helen Hoff and her husband, Oreville Hoff, moved from South Bend to purchase the 1950s-style drive-in several years after it opened, and it has stayed in the family since.
Jason Hoff’s father, Rick Hoff, is the current owner, but as he transitions into retirement he only comes in once a week. That leaves Jason to do most of the 75 to 90 hours of weekly work that it takes to keep the family business running.
Simonton Lake is open seasonally and will operate from now until the last day of September.
“It’s a lot of hours for six months,” Jason Hoff said. During the winter time when the restaurant is closed, he spends time with his family.
Although, he also used this past winter to perfect a recipe for new barbecue sauce that uses the restaurant’s in-house-made root beer.
“It turned out pretty well,” he said.
Jason Hoff said the key to keeping the restaurant afloat for the past 50 years was maintaining its tradition, while also keeping up with the times.
Technology has been one of the changes with time. A computer system in the kitchen keeps track of orders and helps ensure each meal is freshly made to order.
However, Jason Hoff said some things are best unchanged. The drive-in’s root beer remains true to tradition and can still be served in a frosted mug, chilled to 38 degrees.
“We try to keep it as same as we can,” he said. He believes that returning employees also help maintain the aura.
Emily Parsons, a carhop, has worked at Simonton Lake for five seasons now. She began working when she was 14 years old.
“It’s a good place to work and the owners are awesome,” she said. “And of course, the food is good.”
Parsons recommends the pizza burger supreme. “And you have to get burger salt on your French fries,” she said.
Her five years, though, is not the longest tenure of employees. Jason Hoff started helping at the drive-in when he was nearly 10 years old, and he said he’d like to stay there until his children take over.
He already knows how his three children, ranging from age two to age three, will begin working at the restaurant. One will be a “fry guy,” another grilling burgers and another as a carhop.
For the Hoffs, the drive-in is about family. Jason Hoff said his grandmother, Helen Hoff, still comes by for a chili dog and root beer at least once a week.