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Snack Bar: Petaluma’s first drive-thru

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Editor’s Note: This initially ran in the Argus-Courier in 2003, but was dusted off to remember Petaluma’s first drive-thru. Edgar “Steve” Stephenson died at the age of 95 in 2011, while his wife of 70 years, Marie, died in 2015 at the age of 99.

For a generation of Petalumans, the Snack Bar was the place to go for cheap eats. With hamburgers priced six-for-a-buck and a colossal-sized grease-drenched bag of French fries only 15 cents, it offered many budget-minded families a Friday night opportunity to eat out.

A few of the approximately two dozen coffee shops, cafes and restaurants in town in the mid-1950s offered take-out food, but none offered the ease and convenience of a drive-through window until the Snack Bar opened in 1954.

The brainchild of owners Edgar “Steve” Stephenson and his wife, Marie, who patterned the Snack Bar after Santa Rosa’s Eat & Run, the restaurant served up tasty hamburgers, fries, steak sandwiches and fried shrimp at the corner of East D and Hopper (Lakeville) streets for 22 years before closing New Year’s Eve 1976.

“It served its purpose and that was it,” said Marie Stephenson, an inspiring and sharp-minded 90-year-old, citing the emergence of franchised fast-food establishments, as well as increased traffic congestion as reasons for closing.

With a nest-egg gained from selling his share of the Villa Fontes saloon and using lumber from the site’s previous occupant, Porky’s Café, Steve Stephenson built the hamburger stand, its drive-thru and a covered patio that held two picnic tables and a juke-box. Business was slow until Stephenson came up with the idea of six burgers for $1, and then his volume skyrocketed.

Steve, who’ll turn 90 this year, is recuperating from a recent fall, but his recollection of those days a half-century ago are still vivid.

“On weekends, we had five people working and served over 100 pounds of hamburger. At first we bought our meat from Studdert’s, then Carl’s Market, and later from Hagstrom’s,” he said, reciting a list of erstwhile providers. “It was good meat, no junk.” The buns came from Lombardi’s Bakery and 100-pound sacks of potatoes, at $2 each, from Andy’s Produce.

The food was good, but everyone used the eatery’s popular sobriquet, Scarf & Barf, to describe it, and that was OK with the owners. “We didn’t care what they called us, business picked up every year we were open,” Steve recalled with a laugh and a warm smile.

“You couldn’t be a slowpoke. We peeled potatoes to make our own French fries, and pressed the meat into patties,” said Marie. “There was nothing fancy, but we did make our own ‘secret sauce,’ a blend of ketchup, mustard and green relish that went on every hamburger, and we added onions if you wanted them. We had a darn good lunch time, lots of workers from Sunset Line & Twine and from all over town.”

For many teenagers, the Snack Bar provided their first taste of employment. Sheryl Baugh Nadeau (Petaluma High School class of ‘71) started there in 1969 working for $1.50 an hour. “I remember peeling tons of potatoes, rinsing, slicing and blanching them, then putting them into a vat. The problem was when it got busy the grease wouldn’t stay hot enough,” said Nadeau.

One of her fondest memories is on two separate occasions when she was accompanied home by dogs that were following the grease scent on her clothes. “I loved working there. Steve and Marie were so terribly sweet,” she said.

The Stephensons, married 65 years and the parents of Dennis, Ardis and David, met at Hamilton Field in 1941. Steve owned and operated Farmer’s Septic Tank Service when the family opened the Snack Bar, and for a while both businesses shared the same telephone number. “We just answered the phone ‘hello’ because we didn’t know what they were calling for,” laughed Steve.

After the Snack Bar closed, Steve operated Girardo’s Fish & Chips in San Rafael for three years and Marie became a volunteer at the Hacienda Nursing Home, where she ran the bingo game for 17 years.