End of an era as Sam’s Drive-In of Byron closes its doors
‘I want to thank the community for all of their support and friendships over the years’
BYRON — There are institutions in neighborhoods that define a community, providing comfort growing up along with nostalgic walks down memory lane. Sam’s Drive-In in Byron has been such a place since it was first opened by original owner Sam Morrison in 1966, first as a Dog n’ Suds and later Sam’s Drive-In in 1975.
Come into town driving, biking or walking in either direction on Illinois Route 2, Sam’s was an instant eye catcher with its 50s-style drive-in restaurant complete with car-hop speaker stations for placing orders, and a classic 1957 Chevy Bel Air perched high above on a 30-foot pole outside. The car hop stations were in regular use up until COVID-19 hit and everything moved inside.
For the last 18 years the business has been owned and operated by Shirlee Aldrich and family. On Oct. 8 they closed the doors for the last time, which wasn’t an easy decision for Aldrich.
“Generations of families have come in over the years first as kids and now with their families,” Aldrich said. “It was absolutely special to create those friendships. I will definitely miss my regulars that came in daily or weekly. It was the hardest part about being done this season.”
Shirlee, her brother Keith, and sister Nancy first got involved in the restaurant business as young kids helping out their parents who owned Bings, a very successful drive up in Rockford.
“As soon as we could walk and talk, we worked learning the business,” Aldrich said. “We helped the car hops and worked full-time every summer.”
The Aldrich siblings tried unsuccessfully to buy back Bings in 2004, which their parents had originally sold in 1988.
“About a year later, my sister Nancy who was living in Byron found out that Sam’s was for sale,” Aldrich said. “We bought the business on contract in early April of 2005 and along with our spouses that’s how it started.”
If you were a first-time visitor, a few unique items that were customer favorites on the menu included Tex Burgers (first started by Sam) Grandma’s homemade coleslaw recipe, delicious root beer creations like shakes and floats and 24 flavors of ice cream that no one else in the area carried. Neighborhood kids knew of the special treats and looked forward to every visit.
“I lived about a mile from Sam’s growing up,” Kerri Fry said. “When I was little, we would meet our team there after every t-ball or soccer game and they would give our coaches gallons of their homemade root beer. As I grew up, my friends and I would go there every day to have ice cream. My favorite was Oreo Flurry. It was a reward for tackling a hard job or getting a good grade in school. Wonderful memories.”
Aldrich shared that her father was a very good businessperson and had a profound effect on her business sense.
“I always wanted to be like my dad because of the way he did things, and I got my strong work ethic from him,” Aldrich said. “He was a great mentor to many kids for many years and helped them out when need be. Word of mouth providing a good product was his advertising.”
Aldrich wanted to emulate her father's ways of giving and over the years sponsored many sports teams, gave donations for countless events and benefits while hiring local kids.
“I’m proud to say that we did well trying to give back to the community,” Aldrich said. “Also, 90-95 percent of my employees from the ages of 14 to 18 were high school kids. They were all great and hard workers.”
A typical workday normally started at 7 a.m. for Aldrich and she would turn off the lights and lock up most nights between 10 and 11 p.m. seven days a week. Years later, they were closed on Mondays in order to catch up with orders and paperwork.
“You live and breathe the restaurant business with no such thing as a day off,” Aldrich said.
I asked her where do you find time to be a normal person and she said “you don’t” with a laugh.
A combination of the long hours, continued rising costs of products and wages and trying to get good help to run this kind of business contributed to her decision to close. There are several interested parties in buying the business with no guarantees that they will operate it the same way.
According to Byron Mayor John Rickard, it’s an end of an era.
“Sam’s has been a staple here for a long time and it’s certainly a loss for the community, Rickard said. “My family and I have eaten there quite a few times and the grandkids always liked going there for ice cream. My son worked there, and we have a long connection with Shirlee. They will be missed.”
Aldrich doesn’t plan on retiring just yet, but once the business sells the plan is to move to Texas possibly over the winter and come back in the summer.
“I’d like to get my feet under me and figure out what I will do next,” Aldrich said.
As Aldrich sat in one of the indoor booths and reflected on the years, she shared one final thought.
“I want to thank the community for all of their support and friendships over the years,” Aldrich said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. We had a good run.”