Cindy and Tim Sweatte are the owners of Classic 50's Drive-In. Staff Photo
It was 44 years ago when Juel Glenn Sweatte got the idea to open a drive-in restaurant in Norman. In 1957, he began serving area residents tasteful treats at Glenn's Drive-In Restaurant.
However, a friendship with another Oklahoma entrepreneur soon led to a few changes in his business, including the name of the establishment. Within the next couple of years, Glenn's was phased out and replaced by Sonic Drive-In, which was then a brand-new company.
Tim Sweatte, current owner of Classic 50's and son of Juel Sweatte, said his father bought into the Sonic franchise early on in its existence. The Norman Sonic was only about the fourth or fifth in the nation, Tim Sweatte said.
However, when Sonic's founder Troy Smith Juel Sweatte's friend sold the company, there were some conflicts in operation between the corporation and the local franchise. It was around 1986 when another name change took place Classic 50's and the restaurant returned to a family owned establishment.
"I can remember him (Juel Sweatte) really being pressured, Tim Sweatte said. "They (Sonic officials) were going to do anything they could to make him miserable.
Tim Sweatte said it was about six years ago when Sonic decided to build a location right next door to Classic 50's. He admits to being nervous, upset and a little worried about how it would impact the family business.
"I knew the Norman community would pull us through, he said. "We got letters and even had ladies with petitions trying to stop them from building.
Since the arrival of their new neighbors, the volume of business at Classic 50's has only increased, making it a blessing in disguise, he said.
Tim Sweatte said the menu and service provided at his restaurant bring people back time and time again. It's one of the only places in the area to buy an order of pickle-o's, a deep-fried sliced pickle. He said they bread the slices by hand every single day. The two-hour process each morning creates about 2,000 pickle slices.
He said they were the first fast-food restaurant to serve mozzarella cheese sticks and fresh fruit slushes, noting that chains have since picked up those ideas.
Hands-on management also plays a key in the restaurant's success.
"I've got really good management and help, and I've been real fortunate, Tim Sweatte said. "As the old saying goes, if the owners are there, it's going to be good. If not, it's a flip of the coin.
He estimates that during the summer he works about 40 hours a week, but college students are now making their way back to Norman, which means his work week will soon double. At Christmas break, he can "come up for air. On a typical summer day, about 1,200 orders are placed, but once school is in session, the number will increase to about 1,500 tickets.
Despite the growing number of franchise restaurants in the area, Cleveland and McClain counties are home to many locally owned restaurants. Over the past few weeks, The Norman Oklahoman has featured establishments that have been family owned and operated for many years. This week, we visited Classic 50's Drive-In.
"I lost some orders, because I couldn't get to them fast enough, he said.
Tim Sweatte said courtesy and speed set him apart from his competitors. Classic 50's has two different happy hour times each day 2:30 to 5 p.m. and 8 to 10 p.m. offering diners half-price drinks and slushes. Visitors can stop by after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and buy half-price burgers.
If diners eat at Classic 50's on a Saturday, they may notice a change in the usual carhops who bring out their orders. For the past 12 years, this day has been reserved for fund-raising efforts by local organizations. Members of various groups serve as carhops for a day during this time.
Tim Sweatte estimates they have donated about $500,000 to groups since the program began in 1989. On this day, 10 percent of sales are given to the groups, along with any tips they collect. He said they have a list a mile long of groups that want to participate, but there are not enough Saturdays to go around.
Perhaps an upcoming change at Classic 50's will help allow more groups to participate in the program. Tim Sweatte said that hopefully within the next year, a second restaurant location will be open on the east side of town.
"Our success is kinda like a victory in itself, he said. "Most of the time, it's the big corporate guys winning. This is the perfect example of the little guy kicking butt.