Fast Food Industry Has Inland Roadside Roots

Cafe sign off Interstate 15 north of Barstow I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Along the old inland highways and free from the clutches of strip mall design, there are still drive-ins dotting the roadside. Some are still adorned with a working neon sign. Like other eateries across the U.S., these roadside stands thrived along interstates--before freeways guided truckers and travelers past towns.

Still, there is something unique about the inland region's junction of joints. They are connected by a crosshatch of highways, like Route 66, the mother road of the nation; Route 99, the mother road of California; and Highway 91, displaced from interstate duties by I-15 in the early 1970s.

By the late 1940s, as travelers and locals sparked drive-in and cafe business in an increasing wave of mobility, burger stands began popping up. And in this region of working class neighborhoods, menus adapted to the growing demand for Mexican food. Then baby boomer's cruising car culture made some a point-to-point destination.

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The site of the first McDonalds, opened by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, on Route 66 in San Bernardino I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Many of the places have dwindled away, some only leave behind a sign. North of Barstow, an arrow points to empty land where a cafe once stood. In San Bernardino, another sign is a Route 66 artifact for the site of the original McDonalds, the local business that found its way in the world.

Those still serving up burgers and burritos are also road makers for locals who can guide you where family owned drive-ins with regional history are clustered. Then there are cafes rebelling against time so they can keep their roadside truck stop integrity. And if you take take a drive off the freeway and drive along a former highway, you may find more evidence that the inland region is where pop-culture dining came of age.

Dell's Drive-in I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Dell's Drive-In on Colton's South La Cadena, once Highway 91/395, is owned and operated by Patricia and Louie Romo Jr. The late Louie Sr., and wife Rachel, purchased the stand from Dell Miller in 1967. In time, a patio and indoor dining were added to the former walk-up stand. "We kept the name because the sign was nice," said the Patricia, the current matriarch.

El Burrito I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Like other stands in the region, El Burrito in Colton first opened to feed the increasing numbers of motorists. The drive-in is on Mt. Vernon, a leg of Route 91/395, and also a favorite spot for locals.

ABC Stand I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Before being renamed El Burrito, it was ABC Drive-In, a small stand serving root beer and burgers by the Mester family, immigrants from Germany. It remains in the family. The informal walk-up was typical for early versions of roadside stops.

El Taquito I Photo: Ed Fuentes

El Taquito was purchased by Fatima Reyes, a regular customer of the Mt. Vernon stand, over a decade ago. Now her twenty-something daughter helps with day to day operations. The neon sign that once battled for the attention of motorists from other signage now stands out.

Taco Tia Truck I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Outside its former warehouse, a lone Taco-Tia truck sits quietly along Redlands Blvd., once Highway 99. The founder of Taco Tia, Glen Bell, led or influenced the founding of Taco Bell, Del Taco, Bakers and Wienerschnitzel.

Del Taco I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Off Interstate 15, in Yermo, on a road that was once Route 91, a small stand proudly displays a sign marking it as the site of the original Del Taco.

Emma Jean I I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Like the sign says, Emma Jean Holland Burger Cafe is home to the Brian Burger, and the small cafe on old Route 66 in Victorville takes pride in serving truckers for 60 years. It is not that isolated. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives found it in 2007.

 Tony's Diner I Photo: Ed Fuentes

Detour off the Devore exit in Cajon Pass and you will find Tony's Diner on Cajon Blvd., the end of a remaining portion of old Route 66. It is still busy catering to truckers, CHP, and locals. "We don't have a website or tweeter," said the manager. "I guess that makes us more authentic."

McDonalds sign I Photo: Ed Fuentes

This marks the first McDonalds, a small circular walk-up on 1398 N. E Street that first opened in 1940 as a BBQ stand. "San Bernardino was a blue collar town, a working man's town. And that's what we wanted." said Richard McDonald in the 1997 documentary Burger Town. In 1948, they changed operations to speed up service, limiting the menu to burgers. The success grabbed the attention of entrepreneurs who visited the burger stand to see how they did it. One of those visitors was Ray Kroc, who introduced himself to Richard and his brother Maurice. A few deals were cut and a global enterprise began. The original facility was demolished in 1972, but the property was purchased in 1998 by Albert Okura to restore the site to be an homage to McDonalds, reported the San Bernardino Sun in 2008. Okura uses part of the new building as a museum for McDonald's memorabilia and to house administration offices for his chain, Juan Pollo.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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