HIGHLAND | The bright neon lights have dimmed at Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In, a landmark Highland restaurant where carhops served up big burgers and homemade root beer for nearly eight decades.
Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In opened in 1936, when Indianapolis Boulevard was a one-lane highway that sliced through prairie and farm fields.
Seventy-seven years later, the family-owned restaurant at 8801 Indianapolis Blvd. has served its last dog and suds. The drive-in could be demolished if the next owner is more interested in the real estate than the unique building with the church roof and the wavy canopy that drivers parked under while enjoying onion rings, thick shakes and burgers so beefy they used to cut them in half.
The Highland eatery was the last remaining drive-in restaurant in Lake County, though people who are looking for a vintage 1950s dining experience still can cruise over to The Port Drive-In in Chesterton or Carlson's Drive-In in Michigan City.
Brightly lit at night, the Blue Top Drive-in was a beacon for cruisers who wanted to show off their muscle cars, a hangout spot where teenagers went to be seen and the first job for hundreds of region residents. Lately, the drive-in became home to frequent car washes and spirited political debate among a handful of regulars who bellied up to the horseshoe-shaped counter for their daily cups of coffee.
Youth groups, sports teams, dance squads, churches and nonprofits had more than 100 car washes a year in Blue-Top's parking lot. On many recent Saturdays, they raised more money for charity than the restaurant did in sales, owner Kent Johnsen said.
End of an era
Johnsen shut down the Blue Top to take care of his ailing mother, Wendy Johnsen, and decided to leave it closed when she died earlier this year. She had started the restaurant with her husband, Ben, and worked at the Blue Top until shortly before she passed away.
The restaurant been up for sale for years. Sales plunged about 80 percent last year, when the Indianapolis Boulevard bridge construction caused huge traffic backups.
"We probably should have closed it earlier, but I kept it open for the sake of my mom," he said. "She was a Cubs fan and believed we should wait until next year and that it would come back."
Too many restaurants competed with the Blue Top, which was at a disadvantage without a drive-through or the ability to accept credit cards, Kent Johnsen said. Business slumped during the economic downturn, and the weather has been so bad over the past several summers that residents didn't want to sit outside and eat on the picnic tables.
The golden age of drive-ins passed long ago, but the Blue Top's business really started to sink when gas prices rose over the last decade, Johnsen said. The hot rod and classic car enthusiasts who had regularly frequented the Highland eatery get about 10 miles to the gallon and have spent less time cruising.
Car shows also departed in favor of other restaurants that offered more free food, T-shirts and goodie bags.
Property taxes, utility bills and labor costs all went up. So did food prices, and Blue Top couldn't buy ground beef or other ingredients cheap enough to stay competitive with larger chains.
"Everything is working against the small-business owner," Johnsen said. "Everything favors the big corporations, and there are no breaks for the small-business guy."
Johnsen said he will most miss the regulars who came in and tried to solve the world's problems over coffee. They held widely varying political beliefs and would loudly debate until one regular got mad at another and asked Johnsen to kick out the offending party. He always told them it was a free country and that they would work it out.
"We had a guy saying he would run for mayor on the Communist ticket in Hammond, and an anarchist arguing with a Libertarian," he said. "That's the kind of thing that you only see at a local business and that you'll never see at a McDonald's or a Burger King."
The property, which is zoned for most business uses, is up for sale at an asking price of $599,000. Johnsen said he's been getting two to three calls a week, and that potential buyers have different ideas in mind.
Highland Redevelopment Commission Director Cecile Petro said the town would prefer to see the Blue Top remain as a drive-in and would be willing to potentially offer a tax abatement to anyone who would keep it that way.
"It's one of the symbols of Highland and mid-century architecture," she said.
A buyer could choose to demolish the vintage restaurant and construct a new building on the highly visible site near the intersection of Indianapolis Boulevard and Ridge Road. A restaurant owner in Gary has expressed interest in just buying the neon Blue Top sign.
One potential buyer is interested in keeping it as a drive-in, but likely would have to install a drive-through window because that's what many people prefer these days, Johnsen said.
"Things change," he said. "You won't make it if you don't change with the times. The small businessman is a dying breed."