[Retro Roadmap] “Lights On For Service”: Root Beer Stands of New Jersey

Posted on: July 23rd, 2014 by Beth Lennon 19 Comments

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Mugs. Credit: Beth Lennon

Eating in the car may be a necessity for some busy commuters on-the-go, but to others the excuse to roll down the car window and have a tray of food delivered moments later by a friendly carhop at a root beer stand is an eagerly awaited summertime ritual.

The term “carhop” is thought to have originated back in the 1920s when a drive-in waiter/waitress would hop onto the running board of an incoming vehicle, thus claiming it as a customer. Nowadays, running boards are nonexistent, but you don’t have to worry about getting the attention of the uniformed carhops. Just pull into a numbered space under the corrugated metal awning and put your lights on when you’re ready to order from the menu posted prominently on every side of the building.

A few short minutes later a metal tray is cantilevered onto your partially lowered car window. Napkins are tucked neatly into the caps of glass salt and pepper shakers, perched next to heavy glass mugs of cold homemade root beer.

Crispy fries are a staple, eaten individually by toothpick or the fistful, and you can’t go wrong with a cheeseburger or hot dog to round out your meal. Once you’ve finished your meal, put your lights on again to signal that it is time to remove the tray and hand over the check.

Two of the last remaining root beer chains to offer carhop service to their drive-in restaurants are located in New Jersey. Open for over 50 years, these distinctive orange and black eateries offer modern families and patrons a nostalgic, tasty alternative to the conga line of cars wrapped around the ubiquitous fast food chains that can be found anywhere in the U.S.

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Exterior. Credit: Beth Lennon

Stewart’s Root Beer -- Burlington, New Jersey

A roadside landmark on Route 130, Stewart’s Root Beer in Burlington has been open since 1947. Current owner Kirk Xenakis and his sister Thea Malapetsas have run the seasonal stand since 1991, as their parents had since purchasing it from the original owners in 1970.

The building is partially obscured by the large awning that shades patrons from the glare of the sun or the drip of the rain while they eat in their cars. Once the cars pull away, however, the freshly painted orange and black stand shines, contrasting nicely with the clean white uniforms of the carhops.

Topping it off like a midcentury-inspired cherry on top of the sundae is a rare “sputnik” globe twinkling high above the roof of the building, beckoning diners to notice the restaurant and pull in for a quick bite.

Stewarts Drive In Burlington NJ Retro Roadmap Interior. Credit: Beth Lennon

Though Stewart’s is a chain with over a dozen locations in the state, Xenakis believes the success of their restaurant can be attributed to consistency. They insist on high-quality food; everything is always cooked fresh and made to order. The service from the young carhops is attentive and the place is spic and span, but the thing that makes this location such a destination for loyal eaters is they know what to expect when they put their lights on for service.

“We have people tell us that their favorite sandwich tastes the same as it did 20 or 30 years ago or more,” he says. “Parents and grandparents come in now with their children and grandchildren and tell us they came in when they were young or dating. It’s a tradition.”

Stewart’s Root Beer
4524 U.S. 130
Burlington, NJ 08016

Weber’s Root Beer

Much like Stewart’s, the Weber’s “Superior Root Beer” stands originally started as a chain. Based in Oklahoma and popular in the Midwest with as many as 67 locations at their peak, there have always been three outlier locations in New Jersey since the 1950s.

Unfortunately, those numbers are changing quickly; as of this writing, the oldest location in Brooklawn (opened in the early 1950s) had closed permanently and was put up for auction. The good news: The two remaining locations are still open just a few miles away.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Pennsauken NJ Exterior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Weber’s -- Pennsauken, New Jersey

Opened in 1954, this Weber’s is a local landmark with its spinning “lollipop” sign and meticulously manicured flowers lining the busy roadway.

While the surrounding businesses and traffic have increased over the years, this Weber’s location has held its own, standing as a reminder of times when the pace of life was slightly less frantic, when the entire family could tumble into the car wearing whatever they like, and go out for a meal without breaking the bank.

Thirty-six numbered spaces are clearly designated on the meticulously clean parking lot, and their orange and black stand is repainted every season which runs from March through October. A gaggle of teenage carhops waits for you to flash your lights for service, and the ritual begins.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Pennsauken NJ Interior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Manager Tom Devereaux, who has worked at Weber’s for almost 30 years, says they too are sticklers for cleanliness, good food, and quick service. Famous for their tuna hoagie, they also sell their homemade root beer by the frosty mug (you can even get a gallon to go). All of the food is made to order, and they don’t use any heat lamps.

Weber’s Pennsauken
6019 Lexington Ave
Pennsauken, NJ 08110

Weber’s -- Stratford, New Jersey

Mae Komesaruk has owned the Stratford Weber’s since she and her husband opened it in 1959. Previous to their opening, she trained at the Brooklawn location and since then has also returned the favor by training the owners of the Pennsauken location. While her stand is open now, there is a specter of sadness as a large “For Sale” sign sits next to one of the many picnic tables that line the property.

Despite the looming sign, business goes on at this classic roadside stand as it has for upwards of 55 years. Root beer is made with the closely guarded secret recipe, trays are filled with burgers and fries, and cars pull up under the somewhat Space-Age inspired awnings. If you look closely, you’ll see an orange UFO shaped beacon high atop the restaurant, much like the sputnik at Stewart's.

Webers Root Beer Drive In Stratford NJ Exterior Retro Roadmap. Credit: Beth Lennon

Along with her husband (who passed away last year), Mae has worked at this Weber’s since the day it opened.

“I’m tired,” she admits. And after being in business for 55 years and counting, she’s justified in wanting to take some time for herself. “I hope that someone sees the potential of this place and buys it for that. It would break my heart to see it bought just to be torn down.”

As you see how the stand brightens up that corner of the Whitehorse Pike as the summer dusk sets in, you hope someone sees the potential and carries on the tradition -- for Mae and for the rest of us.

Weber’s Stratford
105 S White Horse Pike
Stratford, NJ 08084

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Beth Lennon

Beth Lennon is the creator of the website RetroRoadmap.com. As "Mod Betty," she delights as the retro travel "hostess with the mostess," scouting out cool vintage places and sharing them with the world.

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19 Responses

  1. Gunnar

    July 24, 2014

    I’m “rooting” for all of these. Love the sputnik, too.

  2. dallyn

    July 24, 2014

    I have always wanted to visit Weber’s since I was a child. I didn’t know that Stewart’s was also in the area. Which one do you like better? Is there a difference between the two?

    I am ready to hop in the car and take a ride over the bridge. Thanks for reminding us of these special treasures!

  3. Laura G

    July 24, 2014

    Your detailed descriptions of these places brought back vivid memories. I remember going to Stewarts as a kid. It really didn’t impress me at the time to sit in a hot car without AC with my parents and drink root beer (which was delicious, by the way). But now I remember how nostalgic my folks were as they told stories about going to such places with their friends when they were teenagers in the 50s, tales involving waitresses on skates, teased bouffants, Brylcreem and DAs. I wish I had listened to the stories more closely. And I hope people continue to appreciate and support these great places.

  4. Jamie K

    July 24, 2014

    I had never even heard of Root beer stands…now I want to visit ALL of them. Great write up (and yummy photos!)

  5. candi

    July 24, 2014

    We need to put these places on our next Road Trip. You always have the best places to go and to experience. Hopefully they will be there for the next generation and not just be another area for a shopping center like the one on the next block and the next block after that!!!!.

  6. Sue Nichols

    July 24, 2014

    Great article and photos. I’m hungry now.

  7. Missy

    July 24, 2014

    Now I know what I’m doing for dinner tonight!

  8. Jennie

    July 24, 2014

    Great write up on these dwindling treasures. Can’t wait to visit Stewarts…just suggested it to my husband as the destination for our next night out

  9. Mod Betty / RetroRoadmap.com

    July 24, 2014

    So here’s a crazy addendum to this story I just have to share. 20 years ago my sister and I took a “retro road trip” from Boston all the way to Myrtle Beach, SC. These were the days before internet/cellphones and all you had to go on were maps, books and instincts.

    I recalled recently that as part of the very rudimentary video taping we did of that trip, we had stopped at a Root Beer stand in NJ (I was smitten enough with the salt/pepper/napkin combo that I just had to video it!)

    Flash forward to a few weeks ago when I borrowed a video cam from my neighbor, I was able to see this footage for the first time in 20 years….

    The Root Beer Stand we stopped at was Mae Komasaruk’s Weber’s in Stratford NJ-!! HOW or why we ended up there en route from SC to MA is a mystery, but what a sense of coming full circle, to visit it 20 years to the month of that very first obviously inspiring visit!

    Beth / Mod Betty

  10. Chris Pinto

    July 24, 2014

    I remember passing the one on the White Horse Pike a lot when I lived up there, unfortunately it was usually in the winter when it was closed. Nice to see some are still going strong!

  11. Steve fallon

    July 24, 2014

    Our whole family would go to Stewarts after a day of fishing on the Ramapo river.i looked forward to those sundays.a root beer float and a blanket and pillow to fall asleep in the back of my dad’s station wagon.oh what I would do for just one Sunday like that

  12. Yummygal

    July 24, 2014

    I’m a South Jersey blogger and wanted to thank you for highlighting our beloved Weber’s and Stewart’s! The one in Pennsauken cracks me up every Summer/Spring with “Elvis” greeting passerbys on Rt. 38. Thank you for visiting our great Garden State and writing such a lovely article! Best, YG

  13. Flanurse

    July 24, 2014

    The best kept secret is the hamburgers at Webers served with a thick slice of sweet onion and a slice of Jersey tomato! The fries or onion rings are just a sidekick to those sandwiches… miss the root beer too in the iced mugs!

  14. Dennis A. Bou

    July 25, 2014

    For folks who lived around the Audubon, Mt. Ephraim, W. Collingswood Hts, & Gloucester areas, there was only one root beer stand …. The Keg on the Black Horse Pike in W. Collingswood Hts. It was owned by several teachers fron Audubon High School during the 1950s & 60s, and was very similar to both Stewart’s & Weber’s. It was always busy & many AHS kids worked there over the years …. all the locals still miss The Keg.

  15. presnation

    July 25, 2014

    Love it! Further proof that you’ve always been a divining rod for kitsch.

    Julia Rocchi
    Associate Director, Digital Content

  16. John Beres

    July 26, 2014

    Another great article to share with my friends who want to discover the real NJ. I love visiting these stands, I relax immediately and enjoy every minute. You have no choice but to be in the moment. Thank you so much for bringing back great memories of our trips to the now gone Dog N Suds in Chesterland, OH while reminding me to support these places once again.

  17. Kelly Robertson

    July 27, 2014

    Hot Dog Johnny’s is the BEST!!!! Located in Rt 46 in Buttzville, NJ; awesome food with excellent root or birch beer. They even have a playset/ swings for kids. This was always our family’s stopping point on our way camping.

  18. J Hall

    July 30, 2014

    “Come for the History, Stay for the Food” My wife grew up only a few miles from the Burlington Stewart’s and we enjoyed many visits there when we lived in NJ. Not only is it a cool historic structure, it is a terrific place to eat–the root beer floats (black cows), chili dogs, California burgers, and sides are all first-rate! Thanks for bringing back some great memories…now it’s time for a road trip!

  19. Debra Jane Seltzer

    August 5, 2014

    Great photos, Betty! Coffee table book worthy!