Fresh faces for a city icon
MICHIGAN CITY —Carlson’s Drive-In will open to the public Friday for its 72nd season, under new ownership for the first time since John and Lori Hermann took over in 2001.
“John has been a good mentor to me for the many years I worked for him,” said Laura Imperato, who now owns the restaurant with her husband, Chris Imperato. “John and Marty (Rebac) helped me to become the person I am today.”
Rebac owned the restaurant from the 1970s until the Hermanns took over, and would return daily during retirement to make the root beer and prep the kitchen for the cooks.
It was under his leadership that Laura began working at Carlson’s in 1999, at age 14. She began by answering phones, then dressing hot dogs as a “Weenie Queenie,” then taking orders as a carhop.
After a few years, she moved into a supervisory role.
“I left for about four-and-a-half years, until Marty passed away in December 2017,” she said. “It was like my calling – he’s gone, so I’ve got to come back and hold the fort down.”
The Imperatos ran the restaurant last season under a lease-to-own agreement they entered into with the Hermanns.
“We can’t say enough about John and how much he helped us,” Laura said. “He really took Chris under his wing last year and showed him all the ins and outs.”
The Imperatos became the official proprietors in December.
“Words can’t describe how I feel,” Laura said. “I started here when it was so popular and everyone loved to come here, and it’s still that way. I love to see everyone keep coming back – people from when I was 15 and 16 years old, customers who keep coming back all these years later.”
Chris worked for South Shore Freight for 12 years prior to venturing into the restaurant business with his wife.
“It’s pretty awesome that she worked here for as long as she did,” he said. “She worked with two of the previous owners, and we’re just the fourth set of owners. And hopefully, we’ll be the owners for a long time because this is something we bought for our futures and for the children.”
According to Chris, not only do the Imperatos hope their own children will continue to run Carlson’s as a family business, but they hope the restaurant will continue to play a vital role in the lives of other local kids.
“We’re looking forward to working with the kids of Michigan City, he said. “Carlson’s has been a staple in this town for a very long time. We want the rest of the kids who work here to grow up and be successful, and we want Carlson’s to be a part of that.”
In early March, Carlson’s will designate an entire day for open applications and interviews. Laura encourages anyone age 14 or older to apply.
The Imperatos said they’re excited to accept all major credit cards at the restaurant – for the first time ever – and are working on a new website that will allow people to place orders and pay for them online. They are also toying with the idea of lunchtime delivery service.
And they’ve got some customer appreciation giveaways planned for their inaugural season.
Spoiler alert: there will be free Chicago Cubs tickets.
But Laura and Chris emphasized that – despite all the new endeavors to come – customers can expect the same menu and pricing they’ve enjoyed all these years.
In fact, the root beer and chili recipes remain just as they were when Bill and Fran Carlson established the restaurant back in 1947.
“Our plan is to maintain the nostalgia and honor the history of this place, while at the same time bringing it up to date and keeping it fresh,” Chris said.
Beginning Friday, Carlson’s will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
They will extend their hours to 9 p.m. in the summer, and shorten them again around Labor Day.