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By CYNTHIA VINARSKY



Published: Tue, June 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By CYNTHIA VINARSKY

VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER

BOARDMAN -- Rick Thompson is big on nostalgia.

Owner of the A & amp;W Restaurant in Boardman, he started his career with the root-beer chain at 17 and has worked four decades under its trademark orange roofs.

But these days, Thompson walks a thin line between holding on to cherished traditions and keeping up with a fast-changing restaurant industry.

He knows the old-fashioned drive-in stalls and the traditional menu trigger fond memories for customers who grew up in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

The nostalgia factor is the reason 200 to 400 classic-car owners and hot-rodders congregate there to "talk shop" every Friday night during the summer months, he said.

And it's one reason A & amp;W is a magnet when thousands of car collectors and admirers attend the Hot Rod Supernationals every year at the nearby Canfield Fairgrounds. He expects to have a full house, as usual, throughout this year's hot-rod and classic-car exhibition June 22-24.

Instilling changes: But longtime A & amp;W fans are seeing some changes this year, Thompson said.

Drive-in service -- where customers were served lunch by carhops and dined from a tray propped on their car window -- is being replaced by a service similar to what's offered by most of A & amp;W's fast-food competitors.

All but two of the restaurant's 22 drive-in stalls have been closed since last summer. Thompson hopes to reopen them on a trial basis this summer, but the food will be packed in a bag instead of being served on a tray.

"Drive-in business is a thing of the past," Thompson said.

The change is partly because of customer preference. Drive-in service once made up 67 percent of the Boardman store's business, but only 17 percent chose to eat in their vehicles last year.

Drive-in trays have been hard to get since a manufacturer stopped producing them several years ago, he said. There's not much demand because the A & amp;W chain is building all its new restaurants with drive-through windows instead of drive-in stalls. Thompson has only four trays left.

Staffing situation: Staffing has become more difficult for the Boardman store, too, the owner said, and that's another reason he was forced to limit his drive-in service for several months.

A & amp;W is a small chain -- his is the only one left in the Mahoning Valley since the Warren restaurant closed in the fall -- so it can't offer the salaries paid by larger competitors like McDonald's and Burger King. He said he cut his advertising budget this year so he could allocate more for salaries.

Thompson said he's found that busy students involved in a lot of extracurricular activities and student musicians make the best employees because they know how to manage their time.

"I have some great employees, great kids," he said. "I have quality, but what I need is a little more quantity."

Smaller eateries: A & amp;W, based in Louisville, Ky., isn't building large, eat-in restaurants like Thompson's anymore. Instead the chain has switched to smaller eateries combining two fast-food brands, such as A & amp;W and Long John Silver's or Kentucky Fried Chicken, a practice called co-branding.

It's a cost-saving effort. He said the new restaurants cost about a quarter of a million dollars to build, while it would take two to three times that to replace the Boardman store.

Thompson said he has no plans to add another food brand. He's also holding off on remodeling the building's exterior to conform with changes the company's management is recommending.

"We've done some remodeling inside, but I'm trying to hold on to some of the orange and brown," he said. "Those are the colors we're known for."




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