On any summer night, you can pull into the Minnetonka Drive In, roll down your window and be transported right back to the ’60s.
A family business through and through, not much has changed about the setting or the menu in 55 years. Owners Dave and Deb Bennyhoff took over from Dave’s parents, Gordon and Jeanette, who opened on Shoreline Drive in 1961 with eight kids in tow. The restaurant was an A&W then, and “all of us had to work at the drive-in. That was a given,” says Dave. “We had glass gallon jugs for the root beer. At 9 years old, I was washing jugs and then washing the mugs—I had to stand on milk crates to reach.”
The family-focused, laid-back approach to business is still at the core of the drive-in. “We don’t even have an employee manual—we’re truly a mom-and-pop,” says Deb. The Bennyhoffs—and the staffers who have become like family over the years—stick to just a few guiding principles. High-quality food is a must. Friendliness is key. And always, always keep the lot clean.
“With a drive-in, the lot is your dining room,” says Dave. Theirs sits right on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, which Dave admits made him apprehensive at first. “When they were putting that trail in, I thought it would just be a fad and would trickle down after a summer or two. I was dead wrong,” he says. “I like to go in at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday—I clean up the lot, have coffee, and watch that trail. It’s like a freeway! There’s groups of 10 to 15 bikers—with full-on biker suits—moms with wagons full of kids. Regular walkers. Lots of pets. As many dogs as people.” (On a related note, pups are always welcome at the drive-in.)
Longtime employee LeAnn Henderson says the food is second to none. “Dave’s such a fanatic about his food,” she says. “We took months to find the perfect French fries. I am the hot-dog queen. I love hot dogs, and I’ve always got to make sure they’re good. And I won’t eat anyone else’s onion rings.”
“Our food is mostly made by hand. People think it’s pre-cooked or frozen foods—but the meats are fresh,” says Deb. “We have to strike a balance—people want their food fast, but we want it to taste good.”
Oh, and then there’s the barbecue sauce—with a top-secret ingredient. “When we close for the year, people panic and buy gallons to take home. I ask if they want a straw to go with it,” says Henderson with a laugh.
Sarah Reinhardt, former mayor of Spring Park, has lived in the area since 2001. “The drive-in is a wonderful draw to our city—people confuse us with Spring Lake Park all the time,” she says. “But if you say, ‘You know the drive-in?’ people know exactly where you’re talking about.” Because they live nearby, Reinhardt and her family often walk to the drive-in and enjoy the chicken. “Nothing compares to their fried chicken. And the barbecue sauce is delicious.” The family switches to sloppy joes and chili once the weather gets cooler.
LeAnn Henderson grew up in Mound and was in class with Dave Bennyhoff’s brother. Though she had a personal connection to the Bennyhoff family, she says everyone knew the drive-in. “We’d all go to the drive-in and hang out in front. We never really went out—in high school, we’d go there.” In its heyday, the drive-in became a social hub for the town.
Henderson started as a car-hop in 2003 and then advanced up the ranks. She says the drive-in employs lots of high school students from the surrounding area. “We’re so flexible with the kids,” says Henderson. “And we get to watch them grow up. Some go to college and come back to work summers. It’s just home.”
Dave agrees. “Once you’re settled in, we’re not like other restaurants. We don’t have a huge turnover—employees come back,” he says. “They like their job and they like the atmosphere. We care for each of the kids who come to work for us. Some come in so shy they can’t even talk—you give them a job, and it’s amazing how they open up. Their whole personality comes out.”
“I feel really blessed to work with them. I feel like a mom—a lot,” laughs Deb.
Kevin Borg has spent 20 years in the community and is superintendent of Westonka Public Schools. When he and his family first moved to town, one of their first discoveries was the drive-in. “I order the dark meat [chicken]. There’s this fantastic cole slaw and delicious, buttery bread,” he says. Besides his passion for the chicken dinner, he loves the small-town vibe and the Bennyhoffs’ caring attitude. “They’re a business that believes in community—they truly invest in the schools and events,” says Borg, who got to know the Bennyhoffs when their son Sam went to Westonka schools. “They’re so kind. They’ve hosted field trips so kids can see how they run their business. They employ our students. They sponsor teacher success programs and the wrestling association. They get the community aspect of their business.”
This year, on September 29, the drive-in closed down for the season (the Bennyhoffs usually close up shop on a Thursday in the fall). But two days later, the lot is filled with a mountain of pumpkins, hay bales and cornstalks from a farmer in Maple Plain. And the family has been selling Christmas trees on the lot since the Boy Scouts ran the show in the ’60s. The Bennyhoffs have continued the tradition and have added Canadian spruce tops from Manitoba.
“They’re from way up in Canada—they’re darker, richer, longer-lasting,” says Dave. He sells wholesale to local vendors like Bachman’s, but families can stop by and buy a bundle or two for their homes. “People want to come to the drive-in to get their pumpkins and trees.” Why? Well, it’s the same reason that people keep coming in for their friend chicken or Minnetonka Twin burger with a side of fries, says Dave. “It’s tradition!”
Take a Number
As the drive-in season comes to a close, co-owner Deb Bennyhoff looks back on the summer and shares the numbers behind the family business.
150: Gallons of homemade root beer brewed each day. They still use the same recipe from the drive-in’s A&W days.
1,600: Pieces of fried chicken sold during an average summer week. (Yes, you can buy it in a tub to go—it’s a great way to make friends.)
2,500: Hamburger patties grilled each week. The Minnetonka Twin sandwich counts for two patties—topped with lettuce, tomato, cheese and dressing. Or try a California set-up, California Supreme (add bacon and cheese) or pizzaburger.
0: Roller-skating car-hops. Though they were all the rage in the ’50s and ’60s, the drive-in never gave in to the roller-skating trend. “It’s a good thing, because I’d probably hurt myself on roller skates,” says longtime car-hop LeAnn Henderson.
200: Number of classic cars that pack the parking lot on a typical summer Thursday. Come early, check out the shiny Chevys, and stay for a chocolate shake.