Maybe it wasn’t exactly like the heydays of the 1950s and 1960s when drive-in restaurants were the rage. Carhops or “tray boys” would scurry, or even roller skate, to cars in designated spaces in restaurant parking lots and take orders. Hamburgers, chocolate shakes and French fries were served on a tray clipped to a car’s window. It’s debatable where and when the first drive-ins originated. However, many food experts say the concept was popularized in 1921 by a Texas restaurant chain called the Pig Stand.
But what happened in Solon Square Shopping Center parking lot in May was almost as fun and certainly more altruistic. The first Concert in the Park(ing Lot) was held by 56 Kitchen, a Solon restaurant featuring new American cuisine.
Slap Happy, a four-piece combo comprised of Solon High School alums, played a mix of jazz, funk and rock outside of the restaurant. Customers sat on folding chairs near their vehicles or stayed in their cars, enjoying the music, people watching and eating takeout orders. The menu included French kiss salad, Mexican street corn and farmhouse burgers, a far cry from the runny coleslaw served by drive-ins decades ago. For a few hours, everyone forgot about the virus.
The event drew 65 cars and between 225 and 250 people, although many more were placed on a waiting list “for next time” because there wasn’t room in the lot for the overflow of vehicles, considering social distancing. The fundraiser provided 300 meals (including chimichurri chicken and eggplant Parmesan) for front-line medical workers at University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic who worked tough, long hours battling COVID-19. For a suggested $10 donation, customers were entitled to a parking spot and given a $10 gift card to be used at a later date at the restaurant. Some customers donated more than $10.
The masterminds behind the event were restaurant partners Izzy Schachner and Jay Leitson, who also co-own 56 Kitchen in Mayfield Heights, which opened this past January. The city of Solon, its safety forces and shopping center management all gave approval for the concert.
“Safety was first,” says Schachner. “This could have easily gone the other way and given us a terrible reputation. It was a gamble.”
But the gamble paid off. The restaurant has been asked to hold similar events for a number of groups, and both customers and restaurant staff feel good that they could help others. Schachner says she enjoyed giving customers a chance to get out of their houses and relieve recent isolation stress.
“People’s lives and times have been turned upside down. It’s no longer the way it used to be,” says Schachner, who encourages other restaurant owners who want to step up “to look at the bigger picture and what is happening” in their own neighborhoods. “We focused on front-line caregivers. But there are so many other people who can use assistance, including people who can’t afford food anymore. If there is any moment of sunshine in all of this, I think it’s that humanity is coming out and more people want to help.”