This 1950s restaurant trend is making a serious comeback in the age of COVID-19

Could the resurgence of vintage-style carhops be here to stay?
A Sonic Corp. Restaurant Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Sonic has been offering its drive-in service since the early 1950s. Bloomberg via Getty Images

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/ Source: TODAY
By Erica Chayes Wida

Restaurants are still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but a glimmer of hope has emerged in the form of a nostalgic dining trend.

According to a recent market research study by Top Agency, carhops are becoming trendy again. For those who didn't grow up in the era of bobby socks and vinyl records, carhops are waiters and waitresses who deliver food to customers seated in their cars. Unlike a drive-thru, the customers at drive-ins park their cars, allowing the carhops to attach trays to the car windows so customers have a flat surface on which to eat.

Some may recognize this style of service from the fast-food chain Sonic, which has maintained this vintage offering through the years. According to Top Agency, Sonic restaurants have experienced a boon in business since mid-March — and was even voted as some states' favorite fast-food chain.

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Restaurant consultant and food industry expert Aaron Allen told TODAY Food that restaurants, particularly those that are somewhere in between fast food and fine dining, have been forced to get clever with how they can appeal to consumers in a struggling industry. Sonic's carhop model, which is still considered a novelty, is one way in which other restaurants could thrive.

By the end of this year, Allen expects 10 to 20% of all restaurants in the world will disappear, and the ones that don't will have to adapt how they conduct business. While some spots have implemented wild ways of maintaining social distancing for diners, others are simply drawing from the past for inspiration.

"Fast food did fine during the pandemic because their service model was already set up for it. Most dine-in places had to shut down and some suffered disproportionately," Allen said. "Then in the middle, are the casual dining that we've been reading about for a decade — IHOP, TGI Fridays, Applebee's — what have they done different? We've had 12 versions of the iPhone and they're still the same. It's not compelling enough. Faster and cheaper isn't better, the service needs to be better."

Allen believes there will be "a divergence from faster and cheaper," as people recall what worked in the past and use it to entice customers.

"The industry has to reimagine itself, particularly those in the middle (between fast food and fine dining)," Allen told TODAY. "How do we make it a remarkable experience?"

Creating carhops, offering delivery, curbside pickup, automats, new types of vending machines — these are all ideas Allen thinks restaurants could employ to appeal to consumers in a post-COVID world. For example, before air conditioning was popularized in homes, Allen said, restaurants offered it as a way entice customers inside. In the future, he sees easily adaptable ideas like this re-emerging as advertising techniques.

Sonic may be built on the carhop model, but now standalone casual eateries from coast to coast are using it, too.

OMG Burgers and Brew, a traditional sit-down restaurant that opened in 2018 in Long Valley, New Jersey, has recently adapted its service model to reflect the nostalgic trend as the weather warmed up in mid-May.

On OMG's Instagram account, locals have been leaving comments voicing their interest and many commenters said they'd be making "the trip" to enjoy a walk down memory lane.

Other restaurants are serving up fare beyond burgers and fries at their drive-in dining experiences. Brownstone Pancake Factory in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, debuted its carhop service on May 16. The restaurant serves up decadent breakfast milkshakes and, as the name suggests, a variety of all-day brunch specials, including pancakes.

In Southern California, Mad Madelines in Temecula is trying to attract new customers by letting people know they may request a tray when ordering takeout so they can enjoy their food in the car before it gets cold.