For a restaurant that borrowed its name from the Pennsylvania Dutch symbol for good fortune, a yellow finch, the Distelfink Drive-In in Gettysburg has become one hard-luck establishment.
The iconic neon sign went dark again in 2011. Its once vibrant distelfink, who welcomed buses full of patrons on their way to Hershey Park or Allenberry Playhouse in the `60s and `70s, is now barely visible through the rust and chipping paint.
These days, the visitors who do pull in to the Distelfink Drive-In stay for only a minute to drop off their belongings in a lonely Goodwill receptacle.
Gone are the ovens that cooked thousands of pretzels and baked goods each day, leaving in their place two “For Sale” signs with hand written phone numbers posted in the windows.
But it wasn't always like this.
Next door to the Distelfink lives Cecil Sandoe, of Biglerville, who built the stand in 1954 when he was 21. Sandoe, who remembered the drive-in in its heyday, said he used to serve as many as 40 buses a day, 50 on Sundays.
Sandoe had a heart attack in 1979, and he and his wife Patricia sold Distelfink, watched it change owners several times and eventually fall into disrepair.
“We wish we had moved because we have to see that it's not getting taken care of,” Sandoe said. “I do have regrets about selling it, but, at the time, my children were too young to take it over.”
The drive-in was one of half a dozen Distelfink Drive-In locations that peppered the state of Pennsylvania in the `50s. Where the rest of the locations failed, Sandoe's Distelfink, located at the corner of Old Harrisburg Road and Shrivers Corner just off of Route 15 in Gettysburg, managed to thrive.
The Distelfink franchise eventually closed down but Sandoe retained the rights to the name and kept the drive-in booming for next 25 years. After suffering a heart attack in 1979, he decided to retire and sold the business outside of the family.
Although the Sandoe's Distelfink was not without struggles, which included the construction of a highway deterring most of the traffic away from their restaurant, they managed to build a business that at one time employed 40 people.
“When new 15 opened they said we'd have no business and we were worried to pieces,” Sandoe said. “We never had to move, the people just kept coming. If you have a good product and treat (the customers) right, they'll come back.”
The loyal fans of Distelfink were numerous and included famous names like Mamie Eisenhower, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who visited occasionally to purchase her husband's favorite bakery items, sticky buns, cream puffs, and twists with granulated sugar.
Professional athletes like Brookes Robinson, a baseball Hall of Famer who played for the Orioles, and the Washington Redskins on the way to training camp in Carlisle would often stop at Distelfink's for a quick bite to eat.
During the civil rights era, Sandoe became friendly with several African American church groups whose buses would stop at Distelfink for lunch, sometimes to the dismay of more prejudiced customers.
Once, when a man complained that he wasn't served before some of the other African American patrons, Sandoe pulled out two dollar bills from his pocket and asked the man which one he had paid with.
“The guy said he didn't know and I told him that's because there wasn't a difference,” Sandoe said. “His money was the exact same as theirs and I wanted him to understand that I didn't care.”
Sandoe credited the Distelfink bakery's homemade bread and Pennsylvania Dutch recipes as the reason people kept coming back. He believed his was the first drive-thru bakery in the country and even won a “Best of Class” award at the Pillsbury's U.S. Bakers Bake-Off in 1967.
A lawyer friend wanted Sandoe to franchise the Distelfink soft pretzels but he declined, citing having no time in his busy schedule, a decision he now regrets.
After selling the Distelfink, Sandoe passed his menu on to the new owners. However, as the business continuously closed and reopened under new management, the original recipes were lost to time.
Records show the Distelfink is owned by Sharon Roser, of York, who purchased the business shortly after the yellow finch sign went dark in 2011. Roser could not be reached for comment on this story, but an unidentified man at a number on one of the for sale signs said this week he was “pretty sure it's sold.”
Although the Distelfink fell on hard times, the Sandoes remembered it for bringing them the foretold “Distelfink good fortune” _ and more importantly _ each other.
They met when a 14-year-old Patricia was hired as a summer employee. Sandoe told his mother Virginia “she'll never make it” after observing Patricia work one day.
“He fired me actually,” Patricia said. “But his mother marched over to my house the next morning and hired me back.”
Despite Virginia's strict no-dating-among-employees rule, the two did have a romance when Sandoe returned from the Army and were married in 1962.
“Distelfink was our history,” Sandoe said. “She ran the restaurant with my mother and I ran the bakery and fruit stand. She's helped in everything I've ever done.”
Despite the daily visual reminder of the failed drive-in restaurant, the Sandoes managed to find lasting success with their storage company, Sandoe's Mini Storage, located just across the street. They credited their Distelfink customers as the foundation for their newer venture.
“We hear peoples' names and say `now wait a minute, are you related to this person' and it ends up being the grandchild of an old customer,” Patricia said. “They remember the good service they got at Distelfink and come back and use our business now.”
Still, the Sandoes won't forget the place where they started their lives together.
Despite its seemingly ambiguous fate, they hold out hope that one day the Distelfink will be restored to its former glory.
Original story here: https://bit.ly/12zdVSt