Every Friday this month, we’re visiting some of the area’s favorite summer food destinations. Today, we stop at a place where you can eat like it’s 1954: Bing’s Drive-In in Rockford.
Some fast-food restaurants work hard to achieve that look of an old-time drive-in: tailfins and jukeboxes, reproductions of Cold War-era American kitsch, carhops on roller skates… Bing’s Drive-In doesn’t fuss with those trappings. It IS an old-time drive-in burger joint. No indoor seating. No salads. Not much has changed since it opened on South Main Street in 1954.
Rachel Boge takes orders through car windows, from people standing in line in front of the tiny restaurant, and even through parking lot speakers. She’s a carhop: she does NOT wear roller skates. That’s an insurance issue, says her boss, Loretta Gasparini. She has owned Bing’s Drive-In for the past 25 years. She and her children, and now her grandchildren, try to run it pretty much the same way the original owners did: that covers everything from maintaining a playground and picnic tables, making their own rootbeer, and even using the same barbecue recipe her friend’s mother gave Bing himself when the restaurant first opened.
Gasparini is in every morning to slice the tomatoes, fry the bacon, chop 17 onions… Her brother carefully maintains the soft serve ice cream machine that sustains a lot of the business during mid-summer heatwaves. And while the massive concoction known as The Banana Boat is very popular, Gasparini says the hottest seller is the bacon double cheeseburger. Bing’s fans are not in it for their health. Gasparini says at one time, they put salads on their menu: they were not big sellers. People have certain expectations when they come to Bing’s. Just ask Bob Sweeney. He says he used to be a regular, when he worked closer to Bing’s. He was back this evening because he was craving something “greasy.” In a good way, of course. So he ordered up the cheeseburger, onion rings, and a rootbeer.
So much of Bing’s appeal is tradition: people whose parents took them to Bing’s crave the chili dogs or the barbecue (which is kind of like a sloppy joe). Gasparini doesn’t advertise: it’s a place that depends on its regulars. One woman used to buy a half dozen malts to freeze for her mother who was in an out-of-town nursing home. There’s the guy who honks every morning on his way to work to let them know he’s thinking of them. Ask one of Bing’s 20 or so employees, or Loretta Gasparini herself, about their favorite customers, and they have endless stories…but never know their names... just their orders. It’s always “plain hamburger, seven ketchups,” or “Harry, who just says ‘fix me something.’” Or as Gasparini remembers, the nice man who always showed up at 11:00 and ordered a hamburger, pop, no fries. One day, he stopped showing up…eventually, his wife came in to let them know he wouldn’t be back. Gasparini says they were heartbroken: they hadn’t known he was sick. His wife thought it would have meant a lot to him to let these people who were so important to him know why he no longer showed up.
There’s another tradition at Bing’s: for a lot of Rockfordians, it was their first job. Like car hop Chelsea James: she’s finishing up nursing school, but is having a tough time imagining “life after Bing’s.” She says she started when she was 16 and has made a lot of great friends. James says it’s so much fun, she shouldn’t even call it a job.
Another thing that keeps Bing’s special is it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a summer place: regulars start calling in March, and the employees start drifting back to school in September. Bing’s Drive-In has anchored Loretta Gasparini’s family for 25 years, helping them through the loss of her husband and her son-in-law. And now it’s time to move on: Gasparini wants to retire...she wants to sell Bing’s. She hopes the next owner keeps the name and finds inspiration in the fact they’re making people happy. Plus, you get six months off every year. And if no one bites? Then Gasparini says she’ll stick with the business of burgers, malts, fries, and ice cream cones… ‘til someone else is ready to carry the tradition.