When I first encountered that jokey phrase as a child I thought it was amazingly clever and funny. So did many adults, evidently, because over the decades numbers of roadside eateries adopted it as a catchphrase. Even as late as 1976 Stuckey’s was using it on a billboard near Dallas. A roadside gas station/café outside Omaha bore the equally cornball name Tank and Tummy.
It wasn’t long after thousands of Americans acquired cars and took to the roads in the 1920s that all kinds of roadside businesses popped up to serve them. They ranged from campgrounds in farm fields to tourist homes and cabins, gas stations, tea rooms, and cafés. The Depression failed to stifle the urge to travel by car while inspiring thousands to try to make a living from passing traffic. Among the ideas included in a dispiriting little 1937 pamphlet called The Roadman’s Guide (“A Valuable Book of Money Making Formulas, Recipes, Ways, Plans and Schemes”) were carnival games, refreshment stands, and “eating joints.”
The gas station/restaurant combination was a popular one, often further combined with a gift shop or rooms for overnight guests. The logic is the same one-stop-shopping idea used by department stores: get customers to stop in for essentials and they may buy other things they didn’t even know they wanted. In Taunton MA in the 1920s, the Marvel Lunch and Filling Station not only had chicken and duck sandwiches on offer but also advertised “Stop and See the Trained Bears.”
Although it did tend to render them less refined, some tea rooms were linked to gas stations. Yet Duncan Hines’ 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist gave a slightly grudging nod to The Old Elm Tree near Fremont OH, indicating “Just a wayside place with filling station adjacent but they serve a mighty good steak and chicken dinner, as well as all kinds of sandwiches and salads.”
Which came first in these combined ventures — the gas station or the restaurant? I’ve decided that in most cases it was – and still is – the gas station. And that might account for why so few roadside dining spots earn a reputation for fine food. Consider chains such as Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Dutch Pantry.
With superhighway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, highway stops institutionalized paired restaurants and gas stations, though by this time they were housed in separate buildings. In 1961 the Stouffer Corporation teamed up with Standard Oil of Ohio to test automat-style restaurants. They were not a success, but generally highway self-service food courts have proved acceptable to the motoring public.
Like many of the eat-and-get-gas highway oases before them, interstate service plazas also do duty as truck stops. But that is the subject of a future post.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013