A staple in the 1950s landscape, the American root beer stand is near extinction. This summer on our Niagara Falls road trip, we were charmed to discover an original – the White Turkey Drive-In, virtually unchanged since its founding over 60 years in the town of Conneaut, Ohio, off I-90 near the Pennsylvania border. An open-air summer stand, with cheery red and chrome stool seating and red-and-white striped awnings to roll down in rain, pulling up to White Turkey is like stepping back in time.
Along with Mac’s Drive-in in Waterloo, NY, the White Turkey Drive-In is one of the last places you can get Richardson root beer, mixed on demand with carbonated water and syrup from the Richardson root beer barrel. Served in chilled, frosted mugs, Richardson root beer is a rich, complex, sweet and spicy brew with a thick head of creamy foam – an altogether different experience from regular root beers out of a can.
I can’t say what makes Richardson root beer so flavorful – every root beer has its own sweet-bitter-minty-tingly blend of flavorings, including sassafras, vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, anise, molasses, cinnamon, clove and honey. I just wish it were more widely available.
A&W, founded in 1919 in Lodi, California, started bottling its franchise’s popular brew in 1971. Richardson should join the bottled craft root beer market before its venerable recipe dies out entirely, but it seems like a forgotten brand, not even mentioned on the company’s website.
Root beer, a brewed soft drink, is a true American beverage. Before safe drinking water was widely available, brewed beverages were safer to drink than water, and small beers – lightly alcoholic beverages such as ginger beer, birch beer and sarsaparilla beer – were even consumed by children.
Originally flavored with the root of the native sassafras tree, “root tea” was first brewed by American farmers in the 18th century as a small beer. Later marketed by pharmacists as a healing potion, the first commercial version was sold in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition by pharmacist who dubbed it “root beer” to make it more marketable.
The drink gained popularity during Prohibition, as small breweries switched to making nonalcoholic brewed beverages and sodas. By the mid-20th century, root beer stands were a popular fixture along American road sides.
Sassafras, a tree native to eastern North America as well as eastern Asia, was used by both Native Americans and European settlers for medicinal purposes. But sassafras oil was banned in 1960 from commercial use due to concerns of carcinogenic effects. After the ban, manufacturers found a way to treat the plant in order to extract flavor without the oil.
As you would expect, White Turkey Drive-In makes a killer root beer float. They also make an adorable kids’ version in a tiny frosted mug.
The kids begged for a repeat visit on the way home from Niagara. This time we had a black cow, which is typically a root beer float with chocolate syrup added.
But at White Turkey Drive-In, a black cow is a blended root beer float, or as their sign says, “A refreshing blend of root beer & ice cream.” It’s so distractingly good – root beer ice cream through a straw – that I didn’t even stop for a picture. (And not that you need a black cow recipe, but I’ve included one below.)
You have to get off the interstate highways to find gems like the White Turkey Drive-In. When my husband and I moved from New York City to California, we avoided interstate fast food with a marked-up copy of Roadfood (then called Eat Your Way Across the USA), a guide to regional roadside food stops across America, written by husband and wife team Jane and Michael Stern.
A lot has changed in the last dozen years. We don’t have to rely on professionals to discover these hidden treasures of America, we hear directly from savvy locals via Yelp and Chowhound. Gourmet magazine, for which Jane and Michael Stern wrote the “Two for the Road” column for years, is defunct. But the Sterns, now divorced but still working together, have Roadfood.com, an online collection of their discoveries as well as commentary from others.
It was Roadfood, in fact, that led me to White Turkey Drive-In. I’ve been so fixated on their root beer I haven’t even explained their specialty, the white turkey sandwich.
The original Richardson franchise owners from 1952, Eddie and Marge Tuttle, also owned a turkey ranch in Conneaut. They developed a recipe for a moist, flavorful shredded turkey that they sold in a soft hamburger bun, the same recipe used today by the second and third generations of the Tuttle family.
The turkey is surprisingly good on its own. But White Turkey also has squeeze bottles of mayonnaise or a tangy barbecue sauce, along with pickle slices and chopped onions. Their burgers get great reviews too, but I had to try the turkey.
The non-root-beer treats are just as cute.
Too bad my in-laws missed this place on their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls. They would love it now, too, and the jukeboxes would bring them right back to 1963.
Conneaut is a small town in the middle of nowhere, at least three hours from Columbus and an hour east of Cleveland. So there’s really not much reason for us to pass by again. But we might just have to find one.
White Turkey Drive-In is only open in the summer (mid-May to Labor Day).
White Turkey Drive-In
388 E Main Rd
Conneaut, OH 44030
If you’re in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, Mac’s Drive-In, which moved from the original open-air Richardson stand to an enclosed restaurant site in 1968, is open year round.
1166 Waterloo Geneva Rd
Waterloo, NY 13165
I love how Mac’s has a tribute to White Turkey on its website, acknowledging their kinship as the last of the original Richardson root beer stands.
And here’s the recipe, which I’m including just so I can put it on my recipes page to remind us all to make it.
Blended Root Beer Float (aka Richardson Black Cow)
It’s hard to beat a root beer float from Conneaut, Ohio’s White Turkey Drive-In. But White Turkey’s black cow, a creamy blended root beer float, absolutely does.
- 1/2 cup root beer (A&W or other quality root beer)
- 1 cup vanilla ice cream
- In a blender, mix root beer and ice cream. Serve in a cold glass.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
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