Monday, March 19, 2007

Chick Inn, Since 1953

"Paul Bunyan Burger 3.75--a half pound of the finest ground beef, cheese, thick sliced onion, crisp lettuce and our special Paul Bunyan sauce served on a 5" toasted sesame bun."
Good ol' American fare, beefy, large, cheap.

I was doing research for an upcoming piece on Willow Run, and spotted the Chick Inn Drive In at the corner of Holmes and Prospect, just west of Willow Run and just in time for lunch.

Mid-century modern architecture and a tall rotating sign immediately grabbed my imagination, so I pulled in and parked the car. Here was a cultural gem evoking a time of audacious gas-guzzling cars, unbridled economic growth and a thriving middle class--the fifties. The Chick Inn has been at this site since 1953, the current building dating from 1955.

It's iconic, a landmark, a relic, the subject of a song, and still a functioning full-service drive-in. For decades, the Chick Inn has been family-owned and operated. That is the case even now, although the restaurant changed hands about three years ago. I asked the current owner, Mr. Lim, about business. He said it's not great and said he thinks it has to do with the economy generally. Our conversation was difficult, as the owner and I grappled with a language barrier. He is Korean. I thanked him for talking with me and went out to the car to order. Paul Bunyan burger with a side of onion rings.

The car hop, a young woman from Ypsilanti, took my order by speaker and brought it out a few minutes later with a smile. She has worked at the Chick Inn for nearly a year. I asked for her thoughts on the Michigan economy. She shared that, "everyone in my family is leaving Michigan because there's no work. People in my family think we need a new president and a new governor. She tries to say everything is alright and it's not. We'd rather hear the truth from her."

Then she remarked about the situation for the Chick Inn. She had heard that business dropped off when regulars found out a Korean bought the place. The regulars didn't like that he raised the prices. Then she added, "this is an American place, you know."

My Disneyland lunch was over. My hope for the Chick Inn took a blow. Sure this is an American place, a quintessential American place, and how wonderful that a Korean immigrant has taken the chance in the 21st century to sustain a historic landmark in Ypsilanti. Our state economy desperately needs people like Mr. Lim--entrepreneurs and small business people--to take risks and make investments in communities. Thank you for taking a chance in Ypsilanti, Mr. Lim.