Along with signature homemade root beer, nostalgia also keeps diners coming back to the B&K Drive-In in Rochester every year.
Owner Kathie Adams understands the appeal. She was a carhop while in high school, growing up in Rochester. Some of the people she worked with as a teenager often stop in to reminisce, and Adams is continuing to build memories by hiring students to work there.
“A lot of people come from Rochester and surrounding towns because they like the nostalgia and the food,” Adams says.
At one time B&K locations were common in Indiana. Known for stay-in-the-car convenience, homemade root beer and typical drive-in cuisine, the local restaurants were popular throughout the state. Over time, many of the 200-plus locations closed.
The Rochester location was built in 1951.
This year marks the 16th season Adams and her husband Kevin have owned the iconic restaurant. The couple purchased it in August of 2005.
The restaurant’s opening in March is a signal to the community that warmer weather is on the horizon. B&K opened on March 1 and will stay open until the end of October. It’s a pattern that has been repeated for years.
“Neighbors tell us that they are glad to see us because they know spring is coming,” Adams recalls.
The restaurant is well-known for hand-breaded tenderloin, coney sauce that blankets the coney dogs, and root beer crafted on-site.
“We are one of the last B&Ks to make our own root beer,” Adams says.
While all the remaining locations serve hot dogs, in Rochester the owners have added salads, wraps and a black bean burger to appeal to changing food trends. About four years ago the owners added 10 to 12 flavors of soft-serve ice cream from Round Barn Creamery in Kewanna, Indiana.
The popular coney dog is still a top seller, available individually as well as in packs of six or 12.
“Most people don’t order just one,” Adams says.
The owners have upgraded the eatery’s technology as well, to make ordering efficient. In order to upgrade the wiring on the speakers located at each of the 22 parking spaces, as well as the speakers themselves, internet service was required. Upgrades like this, as well as building maintenance, are some of the costs of doing business according to Adams.
Gone are the days when a teenage carhop came to a car to take a customer’s order. Customers order via speakers, and a carhop delivers the food. While it’s a break from 1950s tradition, today’s customers appreciate the ease of ordering – especially through 2020, when dining out took a hit because of COVID-related shutdowns.
“People want to go out to eat, but don’t like to get out of their cars,” Adams says.
The B&K staff had to adapt the restaurant’s service methods to stay open safely last year. Everything had to be packaged for to-go orders, meaning no trays to cars and no heavy mugs for the root beer. Customers were even restricted from using the on-site picnic tables until July, Adams says.
These procedural changes kept customers coming.
“People could enjoy coming out of their house and still be safe,” she says.
Adams employs about 10 people full time. One of her employees began working at B&K in the 1980s. Another has worked there for 10 years. Even the couple’s daughters have worked there, as well as high school students who must meet academic standards to earn their job.
“The main thing my employees need is that they have to be nice,” Adams says.
The owners support local organizations, from providing coney sauce for concession stands at youth ball games, to supporting summer reading programs and rewards for honor-roll students.
This year the Rochester B&K will host a monthly cruise-in. Also in the works is a “Haunted Drive-in” event.
“We’ve never done that before,” Adams says. “That’s going to be fun.”
B&K Drive-In is located at 1201 East 9th Street in Rochester. Hours of operation are Mon. through Sat. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. In the summer the restaurant stays open later on weekends. For more info, call 574-223-2505.