Rockford Register Star
Byron – If you’ve ever played a baseball game in Byron, there’s a good chance you’ve had a root beer at Sam’s Drive-In.
With its big sign of a sudsy root beer mug, the drive-in diner is a landmark in this Ogle County town of 3,000.
“Sam’s is a Byron icon,” said Byron resident Dan Danielowski. “How do you get to the high school? Turn at Sam’s. How do you get to the football field? Turn one block past Sam’s. Where should we go in Byron? Make sure you go to Sam’s.”
The restaurant opens for the season Monday. Mostly, the place will look the same: Still a ‘50s jukebox on one wall. Still, the back end of a Corvette mounted on another.
But this year, the people calling the shots are the third-generation drive-in experts. And they’ll bring with them the homemade recipes that made their longtime family drive-in.
- Bing’s on South Main Street
- A Rockford Staple
The son and two daughters of Keith and Nancy Peterson, who owned Bing’s until 1988, are leasing Sam’s Drive-In.
It’s been two years since the original Sam – Sam Morrison – sold his drive-in to Ron and Mary Weber. They also own two other Byron businesses and, years ago, used to own the Rockford Taco John’s and Long John Silver’s. They wanted to take a step back from running the drive-in as they near retirement.
Just as it was at Bing’s, running Sam’s Drive-In this year will be a family affair. Dad has been at Sam’s Drive-In, cleaning and organizing, almost every day. Mom’s handwritten recipe for “BBQ” – the same that was sold years ago at Bing’s – sits next to a grocery list on the food counter.
That’s how the drive-in business has been for this family since Day 1. Grandpa Grant Bingeman – known by his friends as “Bing” – brought his Rockford restaurant in 1952. Nancy Whetsel, one of his granddaughters and one of the new operators, started carhopping at Bing’s at age 5.
“As soon as I could write,” she laughed. “If I couldn’t reach the window, someone else took it for me.”
Whetsel and her siblings initially wanted to buy back Bing’s, which is open but up for sale. They couldn’t strike a deal on the price.
In Byron, they look forward to something Bing’s couldn’t offer: small-town flavor. Many of their customers will be longtime neighbors of the restaurant who have made trips to Sam’s Drive-In an integral part of summer life.
“Sam’s is definitely a part of Byron’s history,” said Lori Wellington, a 40-something from Byron who goes to Sam’s Drive-In about four times a month. “It was a regular hangout when I was a teenager.”
Just as it has for years, Sam’s Drive-In will continue employing area teenagers to cook, serve food and carhop for the drive-in’s 20 slots. Car shows, a popular activity at Sam’s Drive-In are still on for this year. The first one is scheduled for Thursday.
Sam’s Drive-In's classic-car rallies are one of Tim Hanson’s favorite aspects of the drive-in.
“It reminds you of an earlier time, when hot summer nights were meant to enjoy with friends and good food,” the Byron man said.
For years, Sam’s Drive-In also has been good for celebrating a soccer victory or cheering up after a baseball loss.
“The Morrisons established a tradition that the coach and the kids could go to Sam’s after a game and get a gallon of root beer,” said Randy Jurasek of Byron. “I’m sure that our sons remember the root beer better than how they did in their game.”
- Address: 705 W. Black-Hawk Drive, Byron
- Hours: 11 am to 9 pm
- History: Opened by Sam Morrison in 1966 as a Dog n Suds. Became Sam’s Drive-In in 1975. Taken over by Sam’s son and daughter-in-law, Dave and Karin Morrison, in 1990. Sold to Ron and Mary Weber in 2003
- Operators: Nancy and Steve Whetsel, Shirlee and Todd Aldrich, Keith Peterson
- Seats: 105
- Drive-in parking slots: 20
- Expect these to stay: Staples such as chicken strips, burgers, homemade root beer and ice cream
- Expect these to go away: Chicken, fish and shrimp dinners
- New: BBQ sandwiches, coleslaw and chili dog sauce from the original Bing’s menu
History of Drive-Ins
According to the book “Car Hops and Curb Service” by Jim Heimann, the first takeout service was in 1905 at a Memphis, Tenn., drugstore. Because the proprietor had more interested patrons than available seats at the lunch counter, he allowed men to take their orders outside.
The first restaurant with curbside service designed for people in cars was the Pig Stand in Dallas, which opened in the early 1920s. Featuring carhops, the restaurant was a huge success, and within a decade there were more than 100 Pig Stands in nine states. The success of restaurants like McDonald’s showed that curb service was not essential for a restaurant to thrive.
“One by one, drive-ins switched over to take-home, self-service or fast-food operations… or simply fell into oblivion,” Heimann said in his book.