Mark Simpson, left, welcomes Tom Evanoff to the Spring Valley A & W in front of the iconic Papa Burger statue.
SUBMITTED PHOTO/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Mark Simpson, left, welcomes Tom Evanoff to the Spring Valley A & W in front of the iconic Papa Burger statue.
It may be the end of an era, but Papa’s got this.

Through sunshine, wind, rain, snow, sleet and hail, there’s still going to be a Papa Burger in the back yard of Spring Valley’s A&W Drive-In, even though longtime owners Mark and Kathy Simpson are retiring from the restaurant business and have sold the landmark diner — complete with Papa Burger, holding his A&W burger high – to business partners Steve Wernimont and Tom Evanoff.

Kathy Simpson observed that the staid statue has become an icon with which people who come to dine at the drive-in pose for pictures, and that on their last day as the official owners of the A&W, they gave their hamburger-hoisting friend a hug as they posed for their own pictures with him to post on Facebook and put in their family scrapbooks, alongside 60 years’ worth of other family A&W photographs.

Those will be placed there for nostalgia of the days when the family worked there day in and day out as…a family. A&W is all about nostalgia, and that’s what’s kept the lights on year after year – families have come by the station wagon-full to have a carhop carry their food out on a tray that’s hung on a car window, pass the root beer around and have a hamburger and fries.

60 years of memories

Mark’s parents, Roger and Marge Simpson, now of Arizona, opened the drive-in in 1956, and the Simpson family has operated as the area’s only drive-in A&W ever since. Mark is certain that it’s the oldest A&W drive-in in the state of Minnesota, and he can prove that through the photographs of his parents standing in front of the original drive-in structure that was later torn down to make way for the bigger restaurant standing there today.

The younger Simpson has been mowing lawn there for 52 years, since he was 7 years old. He recalled sitting on the counter of the drive-in from the time he was very small, and as he grew, he was given a stool so he could reach things by himself, then shown how to mow lawn around Papa Burger. Occasionally, it was his job to wash behind Papa’s ears to get him ready for guests’ souvenir pictures. Roger and Marge taught him how to do everything inside the restaurant – how to fill a jug of draft root beer to repairing the equipment in the kitchen – when he began working the counter and grill when he was 13.

They weren’t quite prepared for him to bring home a girl who hadn’t ever eaten at an A&W, however – for people who inhaled, exhaled, ate and slept A&W, that day was a different one. In spite of her lack of burger experience, Mark married Kathy in 1985, and shortly thereafter, the couple leased the restaurant from the elder Simpsons for three years, then bought it in 1987, moving into the house behind the drive-in in 1989, raising their daughters, Mia and Mallory, in the business.

“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. They would come back to visit us,” Kathy related.

The couple sold the house behind the drive-in in 2003 when they got the opportunity to move to rural Harmony, where they could, on the rare occasions that they were home, enjoy the pasture land where Kathy grazes her horses. Even though they had moved 25 miles away, they still kept very busy in the Spring Valley community — Kathy lent her talents to assisting with tourism and commerce endeavors, and Mark continued his role as the man who knew everything about the restaurant, top to bottom, as his standard line has long been, “There’s always something happening here,” meaning that the rhythm of sending cheeseburgers out the door involved anything from fixing a grill to shining up the windows and greeting customers every day and during the Ag Days Cruise Night event they hosted every year.

Expansion in 2008

In September 2008, the Simpsons broke ground on the 924-square foot dining room, finishing it a short month or so later and opening it for the winter, showing off its “rockola” style, complete with spinning diner stools, a jukebox, drive-in menu, fireplace and shiny white, black and orange floors. The dining room gave guests a chance to enjoy A&W draft root beer while singing “Jingle Bells” or “White Christmas” for that first winter, but ultimately, it has best served as a place for people who prefer to dine at a table in the comfort of summertime air conditioning instead of in a car with the windows open and the hum of August cicadas sounding.

Kathy observed that even though the restaurant closed each October, there have been people who hit the brakes to pull in for a float, people who 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,” she said. “We enjoy the people, and they come back to see us…the best operations are the ones where the owners are always there.”

Time for change

Mark and Kathy have invested over 30 years in the drive-in, spending every single summer there, keeping burgers hot on the grill, floats cold in frosty mugs and customers happy. They determined recently that they wanted to spend their summers doing summertime things, such as taking vacations…or going fishing when an ice shack and an auger aren’t necessary. Mark related that his parents knew some time ago that it was nearing time for the family to let their iconic burger-and-fries legacy become someone else’s, so when the restaurant was put on the market, he had their support.

“Age was a consideration when we decided to sell the restaurant, and Kathy and I haven’t been anywhere together in the summertime for years – the drive-in always came first, so maybe we’ll go fishing. I have an acreage that I want to spend more time on,” he said. “We’re not quite done with all the behind the scenes stuff that needs to be done yet, but once we’re done, we’d just like to take a deep breath, clear our heads and go from there. It’s time for us to move on, do something different, and we’re looking forward to that.”

Transition smooth

Kathy concurred that now is the best time for them to pass ownership to someone who has fresh energy for the family dining experience. “The transition has been smooth,” she added. “Both parties have been extremely satisfied with the move. We’re excited at the possibility of not owning a business and having weekends off for summer vacations.”

Mark admitted that it’s going to seem strange not to have to prepare for opening each spring, but added that he and his wife plan to find jobs eventually, but not in a commercial kitchen.

“I have been there a lifetime,” he said. “I’ve been mowing lawn there for 52 years, so it really hasn’t sunk into me yet because the last few years, we haven’t been open in the wintertime, but I think the new owners will do a great job.”

Kathy noted that when she stops in to check on Evanoff, she feels emotionally achy, like there’s something different in their reality that she can’t quite pin down yet.

“I’m going to miss my customers, hands down…the people who come in, from the veterans and the elderly to the people who are going to the Mayo Clinic who tell me what’s wrong with them and what their hopes are for the future,” she said. “That’s something I’m going to miss terribly. I like coming through the door and hearing about people’s days. I’m also going to miss my involvement in the community, but if they want me, I’ll stay.”

The couple thanked their hundreds of employees – from the teens who have carhopped and cooked over the three decades they’ve been owners to the longtime employees such as Mike Casey, who has an estimated 18 summers at the A&W grill and has become their go-to man, the one they’re glad will be available for Evanoff when he has questions about the daily operations of the drive-in.

New owner moving here

Evanoff, a Two Rivers, Wis., native, grew up as the eldest of seven children in a family that operated a five and dime store that involved all the family in its operation, so he’s certain that his roots will serve him well – in addition to the fact that he has had ownership in two other restaurants, including Cici’s Pizza in Rochester. He shared that he and Wernimont, who previously owned a Culver’s in Rochester, are excited to take on the A&W and become involved in the community.

“I’ll be moving to Spring Valley – my wife is still in Wisconsin right now, but we hope to find a house here – and my youngest daughter will be working here. We’re going to be part of the community here…get as involved as we can,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t fill Mark and Kathy’s shoes, but we’ll try to be involved. We hope to sponsor some halftime activities at the school basketball games, and we still plan to do the cruise night during Ag Days.”

The Simpsons encouraged their customers to continue to support the restaurant now that Evanoff and Wernimont have bought it, citing that it’s the same place, only now it will be open through the winter and have new people greeting and wishing diners farewell.

“They’ve built such a great business, and we’re trying to build on what they’ve built,” Evanoff stated. “We’ll make little tweaks here and there, like staying open through the winter. Even though it’s not the Simpson family still operating it, it’s still going to be here and open. The year 2019 marks 100 years since A&W began, and we’ll have a big celebration coming up. We’re excited to get involved in the community.”

Now and then, Mark and Kathy will stop in for coffee and to visit their drive-in, and just maybe wander out back to say hello to Papa Burger, who’ll still be there to inspire nostalgia for their hardworking days of burger-flipping, cruise nights and family.