The Drive Thru wasn't the first store of its kind in Tiffin in the early 1970s, but it was close.
Owner Russ Eborg is celebrating the business's 40th anniversary today.
"There was one other one in town at the time," he said. "At one point there were seven drive-throughs in Tiffin. Now there are three."
PHOTO BY VICKI JOHNSON
Russ Eborg (left), owner of The Drive Thru, jokes with customer Adonis Humphrey Thursday afternoon.
Eborg credits the longevity of The Drive Thru, located at 205 S. Sandusky St., to its good location and to customer service.
"That and good help," he said.
Assistant Manager Anna Reiter has been with the company since January 2000.
"Anna has been a godsend," he said. "She takes care of all my hiring, training and scheduling."
In addition to full-time workers Eborg and Reiter, the store employs about a dozen part-time people.
The store opened in 1971, and Eborg's mother, Doris, purchased it in 1973.
"That's where the 40 years comes in," he said.
A few months after it opened, he returned to Tiffin from Chicago to help his mother with the store.
After he graduated from Columbian in 1967, he had attended a technical school in Chicago to earn an associate's degree in industrial engineering, "which I never used," he said. He stayed for several years.
"I think she wanted to get me out of Chicago," Eborg said. "I think that was what that was all about."
So, in winter 1973 he returned to Tiffin.
"I was a go-fer when I started here," he said. But within a few months, the manager left, and then the assistant manager left.
Eborg said he had gained some retail experience working at Armanetti liquor store in Chicago, and he drew on the experience when he became manager.
"One of the guys there took me under his wing so to speak," he said. "He taught me about wine."
After 40 years at the same location, Eborg said it's surprising how little has changed. The building looks much the same as it did then.
But the products are different.
"The types of grocery items have changed," he said. "And the beverage line has just exploded with all the craft beers, energy drinks and a hundred kinds of water."
The store also carries cigarettes, snacks and groceries such as bread and milk. He said he's noticed a decrease in tobacco sales due to smoking laws and price increases.
Becoming a lottery agent was a boost to business, he said.
"We're a full-service lottery agent," he said. "We carry all the games that are available. When we started there was one instant ticket. Now there are 50-some. We carry the ones customers ask for most."
"Schools actually do receive quite a bit of money from the lottery," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not a big percentage of the expenses."
Through the years, Eborg said the biggest change has been is the rise of "craft beers," or small-batch beers from micro-breweries.
"Sometimes a guy will just get an idea that he wants to create a beer, either at home or at a micro-brewery," he said. Great Lakes Brewing Co. and Sam Adams are two examples.
"Once that category started to explode, everybody wanted to get into it," he said.
He said there are some customers who visit every week to investigate whatever is new.
"It used to be we carried two or three imported beers and that was about it," he said. "Now we have a whole cooler devoted to it."
Although products change, he said attention to customers does not.
"The one constant thing we always believed in is customer service," he said. "The average customer probably spends about 30 seconds in the drive-through - unless they can't make up their mind."
Although the cash registers used to track numbers of customers, Eborg said they don't any more.
"As an outside guess, I'd say we're in the 300-400 range on a normal weekday, and considerably higher than that on Fridays and Saturdays," he said.
He said his business wasn't hurt when the recession hit in 2008; not in the beginning anyway.
"Recessions are funny in the beer business," he said. "People don't really acknowledge about how bad things are. The beer business will hold on.
"People don't like bad news," he said. "They might even tip an extra one."
The delay lasts for nine months to a year, he said.
"But then things get really tight and it really sets in," he said. "We are just now starting to see us getting out of this one."
Through the years, Eborg said he remembers a few interesting happenings - a few accidents and several break-ins.
One day he was called back to the store soon after arriving home. He returned to find a young man sitting in his trunk with his head hanging down.
His vehicle had hit an ice cream freezer, knocking it off its legs.
"We had half gallons of ice cream laying all over the place," he said.
Another time he got called back to the store to find a customer had a mishap with a ladder in the back of a pickup truck.
"The ladder hit my sign over the back door," he said. "Not only did it bust the hell out of my sign, but it pushed the ladder out the bottom of his tailgate."
Several break-ins he would rather not remember, especially one more than 10 years ago.
"I actually got held up one day in here," he said. "I looked up to see a barrel of a gun about that far from my nose," indicating a few inches away. "They didn't catch him."
Another night a neighbor heard loud noises coming from the back room and called police.
"They took off, but they beat the hell out of the hinges on my safe trying to get into it," he said.
But most days are pleasant and he enjoys talking and laughing with customers.
He sees a bright future for drive-throughs.
"I don't think they're going to change," he said. "I think they're still going to exist because of the convenience. It's easy to stop and get milk and bread and baked goods."
He said 95-96 percent of the business goes through the drive-through but there's a walk-in store also.
Store hours are 7 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.