Editor’s Note: This location is no longer in operation.
The Barrel was once a hopping drive-in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was THE place for people to hang out at.
Cars filled each spot under the overhang. Carhops delivered meals and drinks.
The drive-in opened in 1958. A local radio station had its DJs broadcasting live from a booth atop the drive-in. Life was good.
Years passed. Times changed. People moved on. The Barrel stayed the same, and that was part of the problem.
The eatery became tired.
Despite the age, the food has remained great. The day we visited, there were about a dozen people in the dining room.
We had broasted chicken dinners with our friend Sara Broers of Mason City. Sara has several blog sites, including Travel with Sara. The food was delicious. The price was reasonable – $9.99 for a three-piece chicken dinner with a side salad and a side item. Sara and Lisa also had chicken dinners.
Seth Thackery owns The Barrel. He has worked there for most of his life since he was 14. He bought the restaurant about six years ago.
Since then, he has had to put a lot of money into it to keep The Barrel open. As a 60-year-old facility ages, things fall apart.
Seth fought the fight as best he could. He hasn’t paid himself a salary in years. With repair needs piling up, priorities had to be made.
“We have to replace (equipment) or do without,” he said.
He figured he may have to sell the restaurant. Casey’s General Store expressed an interest in buying the land. Rumor spread throughout Clear Lake that The Barrel was going to be sold and closed. Local media outlets reached out for confirmation.
After that, civic leaders became involved with the effort to save The Barrel. Seth received donations from local businesses and residents for repairs and clean-up. He also received the 10x Business Makeover Award, worth $100,000 of business coaching from Julie Wright – a local businesswoman – over two years.
Volunteers painted the exterior of the drive-in, fixed The Barrel’s barrel (it even rotated for a few minutes before a gear went out), fixed the ceiling in one of the dining rooms.
“Getting the media behind it,” Seth said. “Getting the community behind it, is the best chance we have of making it.”
Despite the work completed thus far, repairs are still needed. The main dining room needs its ceiling repaired, restrooms need to be renovated, and the kitchen needs to be replaced, he said.
Seth dreams of restoring The Barrel to its former glory. Plans include resurrecting the 1950s concept. The car port would have intercoms for ordering. Carhops could deliver the food and drinks to customers. He’d like to renovate the dining rooms with a ‘50s theme.
Car shows could be hosted at The Barrel again.
“Local car club shows started at The Barrel,” he said.
The path to business survival is challenging, but hope is there for success.
“Hopefully, we get it fixed,” Seth said. “I love the place.”
For more information on The Barrel or to follow its progress, please check out the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/barreldrivein.