Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Back To The Root

You don’t need a time machine to experience a classic Midwest summer—you just have to go to Marion.

When our editor called me into his office to start brainstorming for this issue of Stock & Barrel, the idea of nostalgia surrounded the word “summertime.” For me, summertime was spent just about 45 minutes north on 23 in Marion, Ohio. You’ve probably heard of us for a mix of things: popcorn and festivals dedicated to just that (unique, fun, and tasty!), Warren G. Harding (controversial, but a good time!), and the Marion Power Shovel Company (I’m too young to even know what this actually was!)

I did all the normal kid summertime things: I played baseball on one of the four different teams offered from the same school; I avoided pools before games because every good father knows pools are and forever will be the kryptonite of any prodigy baseball player; and I inevitably quit baseball because every cool kid knows baseball practice kinda sucks and pools are kinda awesome. But the best part of my summer as a child had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with the celebration afterwards.

It was pizza from one of the seemingly hundreds of options. Or maybe it was snagging an Oreo Clipper from the Jer-Zee (*name drop, Google it*), but never finishing it because I was 8-years-old and who trusts me with those kinds of decisions? And if I was really lucky, it was heading over to Stewart’s Root Beer for a truck picnic of delicious deep fried fair food.

Stewart’s Root Beer is your traditional, old school drive-in diner. Car hop service. Root beer floats. It’s everything you would imagine if you’ve ever pictured your grandparents (or, parents…) going out to grab a milkshake and a burger before they go shoot the loop and listen to Bill Haley. If you scroll through their ‘About Me’ on Facebook, you’ll notice they’ve been serving up bites since 1925, but the original Stewart’s started in 1924 by a man named Frank Stewart.

Legend has it that Frank was a school teacher who needed a little extra cash in the summertime so he opened up the first ever Stewart’s Drive-In in 1924. Just a year later, the small time drive-in made the move to where it currently resides in Marion as the oldest operating Stewart’s in the country. Michelle Whitaker, owner, operator, and general do-it-all superwoman, said the original Stewart’s would sell root beer and other sodas along with popcorn that was extra salty—business is business and those soda sales numbers don’t lie! Sundays were the big day as they were Popcorn Sundays—a major hit in a town that would eventually have a festival and museum about popcorn.

Eventually, Stewart’s would expand into a bigger menu, adding items like coney dogs, hamburgers, and fries as well as venturing into its most iconic feature: the root beer floats with hard ice cream. You park your car right next to the ordering machine and a carhop will bring your food right to your window on an aluminum tray. These menu updates throughout the early 1930s and into the 1950s are surprisingly just about it when it comes to the current menu. Whitaker, who started working at Stewart’s in 1996 as a carhop, said the families in the past haven’t added much to the menu and she’s been following suit.

Well, that and when she switched over from a traditional credit card reader to an iPad with a Square credit card reader, she caught a lot of flack from the regulars. People like their Stewart’s how it is, and she is well aware of that. Recently, someone stopped by on a Sunday asking for popcorn—that’s how long people have been coming here.

She’s added menu specials to see how they do—she’s been having success with hits like sweet corn nuggets (a personal favorite) and mac’n’cheese bites (a universal favorite)—and if they’re gaining enough love, she’ll keep ’em on the menu. Other than that, it’s the same coney dogs and super burgers they’ve been serving up for decades now.

Currently, Whitaker takes care of the operations of Stewart’s. She prepares food when things are getting busy in the small set-up. She takes orders from the cashier stand when the carhops are running orders and preparing drinks. She’s the handy-woman who knows what to do when the ice machine isn’t making ice on Sunday and it’s 85 degrees out. And she, along with her husband, make the nine-hour drive to New Jersey to restock on the iconic Stewart’s Root Beer every couple of months during operations.

It might seem chaotic at times, but Stewart’s staff is a close family that has been built on a word-of-mouth basis. Meaning they don’t have an application: you either know someone working at Stewart’s, or you don’t. My sister got a job there in high school because my cousin worked there. My cousin got the job because her best friend started there. She got the job because … you get the idea. Just like the restaurant, the staff is connected and entrenched into the joint’s 100-year history.

It also helps that Stewart’s is only open from March to September, another thing that keeps people coming back and loving it. In Marion, you know when that first halfway decent day in March comes everyone will be rushing over to Stewart’s for a quick bite. And you know right when the Popcorn Festival is about to come to town, people will be flocking for one last piece of homemade strawberry pie before they close up for the winter.

Beyond the menu, Whitaker said she does want to add on a few things to the restaurant. She added picnic tables in the back and those were a huge hit, so she plans to build on that momentum by adding some more tables as well as some more lighting. She’s free to add as she pleases, just as long as anything she adds is the color orange. She also mentioned dreams of creating a Stewart’s Food Truck—and to that I say, HELL YES—but for now it’s almost July and those strawberries for the pie aren’t gonna cut themselves. Much like my conversation I had with her before this story, she’s gotta get back to work and I don’t think she’d have it any other way.

Stewart’s Root Beer is located on 1036 N Main St. in Marion, Ohio. For more, visit stewartsmarion.com.

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