by Erika Anderson, Museum at Campbell River
Before the proliferation of modern fast food restaurants with their “drive-through” came the more social and certainly less rushed version, the “drive-in” restaurant. An automobile culture was emerging across North America. At drive-ins, carhops would clip trays on to the car windows and patrons would enjoy their meal in the comfort of their own vehicles. The drive-in was the place to be. The first drive-in restaurant opened in 1921 in Dallas, Texas, although it would take time before the idea became wide spread. In 1951 the concept arrived in Campbell River with the opening of Del’s Drive-In.
Del’s offered the complete drive-in experience, including carhops in go-go boots and green and white uniforms. It quickly became a meeting place where teens would come every night with their music blaring. Del and Betty Pelletier began the restaurant, and then after leasing it to others sold it to Del’s brother and sister-in-law Ernie and Joyce Pelletier in 1960. “Every weekend in the summer it would be busy busy. All the kids would come, and they would even have little dances out in the parking lot. They would get all of their radios going and it was a fun place to be,” recalls Joyce.
When Ernie and Joyce bought the restaurant they were only 28 and 25 years old respectively, and had 2 young girls. Over the next few years their family grew to 4 kids with the arrival of 2 boys. “When we first got started if someone had come in with a $50 bill we couldn’t have changed it. It was scary, I would go home at night and wonder if we were going to make it through another day, and we did. We hit it off really good with the kids that patronized us. They would be sitting out on the hoods of their cars and we would be sitting inside talking to them through the window. Then we would say ‘let’s close up early and go to the dance!’ We would close up at 11 instead of 12, take off and party until 2 in the morning and then be back at it at 9 the next morning, 7 days a week. It was a very demanding job, but it was fun, we had a lot of really good help.” Ernie and Joyce’s daughter Yvonne remembers her and her sister helping out with the family business. “One of the things I remember when sis and I were young , about 5 and 7, we would go down and help out at the restaurant. There was a big machine that was a potato peeler would scrub potatoes and get peels off, then we would put each potato in the chipper that would make the chips. Everything was fresh. We would also make the hamburger patties. The hamburger was from the butcher in Black Creek. It came in the brown butcher paper. It was defrosted overnight and it would still be partially frozen in the morning and we would freeze our little hands mixing the ingredients in. Then we would use an ice cream scooper and scoop them into hamburger press and put them on cookie sheets in the fridge. It was one of our chores – helping out in the restaurant. We would also help mom cook the pies and pastries. We would make cherry, raisin and apple pies. We would make 20 to 30 pies at a time. When we got older we would waitress at the shop and help out that way.” The kids helped with all sorts of jobs, such as prep work and sweeping the lot in the morning.
Joyce remembers clearly one Canada Day early on in in her career as a restauranteur. “The July 1st parade used to come right past our place. We were there at 7:30 or 8 in the morning chipping chips and blanching and getting ready. Then everybody came at one time. They were all saying “Where’s my order! Where’s my order!” My husband at the time was the cook and I was the waitress. I kept saying “It’s coming! It’s coming!” Finally I was so frustrated I took off my apron and said “I quit” and I went and sat on the curb out the back door. Next thing I know my husband came and joined me. So we were sitting out there thinking what do we do now? We finally got it all under control and everyone got their orders, but there were so many people at one time. In later years we coordinated it a little better.”
Campbell River local Dave Tabish reminisces about his times cruising Del’s: “Getting a driver’s license and your first car was a big deal, you had a license 12 hours after you turned 16 and cars were a big part of our lives at that time. Driving around town was a big event, you would cruise through the plaza and go see who was there to talk to, and then drive by Del’s to see who was there. You always cruised past Del’s.”
Del’s was loved not only by local residents, but also by many of their employees who have fond memories of their times there. In an article in the Courier-Islander from 1997, Melissa Hudson, nee Skwarchuk, reminisces about working at Del’s. “It’s like once it gets in your blood you can’t stay away. I don’t think I have one bad memory of that place and you can’t say that of many jobs.”
Although not currently on display, the Museum has in it’s collection the orange and blue neon sign, featuring an ice cream cone and the words “Del’s Burgers”. This sign had replaced an earlier, less ornate sign that read “Del’s Drive-In”. Recently a photograph of the Del’s Drive-In sign was enlarged so that graduates of Carihi High’s class of 1975 could have their photo taken with it. According to Dave Tabish for the class of ’75, Del’s was a gathering place where kids would go for lunch or meet up after school.
When asked what made Del’s unique, Joyce notes “We had the best burger I have ever had. Never had another one to compete with it.”