Published on July 5, 2016
A carhop is a waiter or waitress who brings fast food to people in their cars at drive-in restaurants. Carhops usually work on foot but sometimes use roller skates, as depicted in movies such as American Graffiti and television shows such as Happy Days. Carhops have long been associated with hot rods.
The first carhops appeared in 1921 when automobiles were beginning to be a common sight in Dallas, Texas. Two men, a businessman named J.G. Kirby and a physician named R.W. Jackson, decided to take advantage of the fact that many people owned cars and more were coming. They realized that many of the drivers would rather not get out of their cars to eat. They opened a restaurant called the Pig Stand, which had male carhops from its inception. The A&W corporate website actually claims to have opened the first carhop restaurant in 1923, just two years after the Pig Stand initiated carhops. The word itself isn’t used in print until 1937.
Women soon replaced male carhops during World War II, because when most men were in the war, restaurants discovered that a pretty girl sold more food.
Carhops began disappearing during the 1960s as newer drive-ins began offering drive-through service. They can be found today at a few remaining original drive-in stands and nostalgic fast food establishments, mostly in smaller and rural towns with local ownership. Sonic Drive-In still uses carhops as servers at over 3,400 restaurants. There has been a resurgence, with some franchises cashing in on the nostalgic aspect and tapping into the memories of the baby boomers. The aluminum window trays used by carhops are still manufactured today, mainly at a small shop called Meritt Tool & Die in Vermontville MI, and distributed to many drive in restaurants around the country.
Traditional carhop costume
The uniforms of early carhops were important, as many drive-ins were competing and something eye-catching was seen as gamesmanship. There was often a military, airline, space age or cheerleader theme, or any other concept an owner thought would bring customers in.
A carhop was the most prominent image on the poster for the film American Graffiti. They were also often seen in the first two seasons of Happy Days.