Kathy and Mark Simpson with their daughter, Mallory, at the counter of Spring Valley's A & W drive-in. Submitted photo
Kathy and Mark Simpson with their daughter, Mallory, at the counter of Spring Valley's A & W drive-in. Submitted photo
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Spring Valley’s A&W Drive-In is not only celebrating its 60th anniversary of operation this year, it is also marking the 20th anniversary of its annual A&W “End of Summer Cruise Night” Thursday evening during the 2016 Ag Days celebration.

“We love old cars and trucks. The cruise night evolved into an Ag Days event, but first, Bruce Fishbaugher came to me and asked if we’d be interested in having a cruise night because there were none around here – the closest one was at the Sandy Point Supper Club in Oronoco,” recounted Kathy Simpson, co-proprietor of the drive-in with her husband, Mark.

When KOOL 104.3 Oldies Radio began broadcasting in1997, A&W advertised on the station. Fishbaugher from the radio station and then Spring Valley resident Dan Anderson – a former A&W employee who worked for Simpson’s in-laws, Marge and Roger, who opened the drive-in in 1956 – approached Kathy and Mark about the potential to bring in all kinds of vintage vehicles at the drive-in, which is a destination for diners who love that old time rock ‘n’ roll, bobby socks and food brought to them by a carhop.

“We weren’t sure how it would go when it first started, but Dan Anderson filmed the first one, and Mike Sveen, of KOOL 104, announced it,” said Simpson. “We were asked to move it to Ag Days weekend so it could be an Ag Days event, but at first, we didn’t want to, but we just decided ‘why not?’ and it’s been that way ever since.”

Two decades later, the “show and shine” event offers a place for car enthusiasts to bring their favorite set of wheels – be it a Chevrolet 442, Kathy’s favorite, a graceful little 1940s coupe, a hot motorcycle, or even a horse cart, which Jeff Reiland brought to the show a few years ago. It’s become such a big customer appreciation event – drawing up to 400 car owners – that the Simpsons have to depend upon the community to help make it possible. They borrow adjacent parking lots courtesy of Spring Valley Greenhouse, America’s Best Value Inn & Suites, Kuehn Motor Company and Sunshine Foods for the cruise night and call on friends or former employees to help serve all of the diners who come to have a root beer float while they’re admiring the lineup of cars ranging from Model Ts to 2014 Chevy Camaro SSTs.

It’s all about nostalgia, the couple noted, explaining that nostalgia is what keeps the lights on year after year, be it during the cruise night or on an average July Tuesday.

And there’s no doubt that what Mark is certain about is the oldest A&W drive-in in the state of Minnesota is one of the reasons that the cruise night is a success.

Mark, who has been mowing lawn at the drive-in since he was 7 years old and began working in the restaurant when he was 13, has 47 years of watching cars come and go, and in the course of those years, things have changed quite a bit.

His parents opened the original drive-in in a building that served its purpose well enough – they were able to dish up lots of ice cream for floats before a mandate came that they had to rebuild – and lived in a trailer behind the restaurant. Mark recalled sitting on the counter of the drive-in from the time he was small, right up until he was big enough to start that lawnmower. And that meant mowing around Mr. Burger, the giant, plump statue in the yard that has stood there in rain or shine; occasionally, it was Mark’s job to wash behind Mr. Burger’s ears to get him ready for the guests to take their souvenir pictures of the jolly man and the guests’ children. Marge and Roger also taught their son how to do everything inside the restaurant, from filling a jug of draft root beer to repairing the equipment in the kitchen.

In 1985, he brought home and married a girl – Kathy – who had never eaten at an A&W before. That soon changed.

In 1987, Mark and Kathy bought the drive-in from Roger and Marge, moving into the house that the elder Simpsons owned directly behind the drive-in in 1989, raising their daughters, Mia and Mallory, in the business. They also discovered that they weren’t parenting just their own children, but holding to the same high standard all of their young employees, teaching them what it takes to give guests a good impression of and experience with a restaurant, and also how to hold oneself in the right esteem in spite of school or home situations.

“It taught our children how to work, provided a foundation on how to work with the public and give back to the community…there are kids who were our employees who have grown up here at the A&W,” related Kathy.

On occasion, the former cooks and carhops stop by to visit, learning that the house behind the drive-in was sold in 2003 when the couple moved to rural Harmony to enjoy the pasture land where Kathy grazes her horses. And there are the people who hit the brakes because they just know how to find the only A&W drive-in in southeastern Minnesota.

“We’ve met people from all over the United States, some from Germany who come back every time they’re here,” said Kathy. “The best operations are the ones where the owners are always there.”

Mark agreed, adding his standard line, “There’s always something happening here.”

His “always something” can mean anything from getting down and dirty to fix a grill to shining up the windows and greeting customers and car owners for the cruise night, this year dedicated to Marge and Roger in honor of their devotion to meeting the public with the best burgers and fries in town delivered by a smiling carhop and hung off drivers’ windows. The elder Simpsons now reside in Arizona and would like to attend the celebration, but their health is troublesome and prevents them from firing up the engine and hitting the road for their hometown.

Mark and Kathy feel that it’s important for show participants to have an opportunity to simply show their cars and enjoy chatting with people who love that chrome reflection and glossy paint job instead of competing for prizes. As Kathy pointed out, it is just a “show and shine” event, a customer appreciation party to thank their guests and also, something of which they are very proud, a “Toys for Tots” donation event during which attendees may bring a toy to donate to the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program to benefit children who may not receive toys during the Christmas season.

The night’s special moments will include touring the town’s parking lots filled with fine automobiles, motorcycles and more from the tri-state area, meeting the A&W Great Root Bear, having a burger and a float at the drive-in during the A&W’s 60th anniversary season, watching balloon artist Kevin Lindh create some very twisty critters from long balloons, and entering in drawings for prizes. Prizes being given away during the cruise night include Twins, Minnesota Zoo, Deer Creek Speedway, Renaissance Festival, Commonweal Theatre, Old Log Theatre, Valley Fair, Mall of America Underwater Aquarium and Brave Community Theatre tickets, one membership to the Minnesota Street Rod Association, A&W mugs, key chains and other A&W merchandise and collectibles, Minnesota Street Rod Association t-shirts, MOTHER’s Car Care products, car wash gift certificates, gas cards, jugs of A&W root beer, and of course, fuzzy dice.

It’s definitely an evening not to be missed – one during which Mark and Kathy know they’ll be very, very busy, but also very, very appreciative of the people who have dropped by for a snack, brought the station wagon filled with kids for a special Sunday night supper or come to share a twilight ice cream cone. They expressed their most sincere gratitude, saying, “We appreciate our customers. They’re the ones who have made this all possible and kept us open for all these years. We hope they come to our cruise night and enjoy our customer appreciation event.”

The Spring Valley A&W 20th annual Cruise Night is slated for Thursday, Aug. 18, from 4 to 9 p.m. at A&W Drive-In, 730 N. Broadway Ave., Spring Valley. For more information, log onto the A&W website at http://awesomedrivein.com.