South Charlotte

There are no strangers at Hinson’s Drive-In

Sixty years ago, twins Donald and Ronald Hinson opened a curbside drive-in restaurant on U.S. 74 at the Mecklenburg-Union county border.

Customers came from Charlotte and Monroe to mingle with friends and eat at Hinson’s Drive-In.

In a time where people and businesses are easily replaced, Hinson’s is a landmark.

“We’ve been lucky,” said Donald’s son and Hinson’s current owner, Phil Hinson, 52. “We made it through the hard times.”

A 60th anniversary celebration is planned for noon-7 p.m. Sept. 20, featuring bands and outdoor games. Hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue will be on the menu.

In 1954, hot dogs cost 15 cents and hamburgers and beers were 25 cents. Bathrooms were outside. A jukebox played music and locals gathered under an awning.

Phil Hinson started running the restaurant at age 19. A native of Union County, he grew up behind what is now Monroe Mall. Phil said he actually started cooking on the existing flattop grill about 6 or 7 years old.

He said his father and uncle would be working at Hinson’s and stop to take a smoke break. If he asked for something to eat, they’d tell him to go cook whatever he wanted.

He’s still cooking, now working 50-55 hours a week.

Leslie Helms is the only other employee at the restaurant and has been there for 10 years. Phil’s daughter and son help out occasionally.

Phil Hinson and his wife, Tanya, have four children, ranging in age from 12 to 22. Although running a restaurant takes a lot of time, Phil has eked out enough extra time to coach some of his children’s sports teams over the years.

The restaurant is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Regulars belly up to the bar or grab a meal to go, as the restaurant has been expanded to allow dining inside. The days of curbside service are gone, but a jukebox still plays and there are tables outside.

A pool table and dartboard in a back room are there for customers to play. Bands including Three Point Hitch and Welfare Baby play at the eatery on Friday nights.

Several years ago, Hinson’s hamburger made it into the “Final 16 Burger Wars” in The Charlotte Observer.

“Burgers are my No. 1 seller,” Phil said. “Whatever people want, that’s what you’ll run out of.”

Hinson makes his own cole slaw; he also smokes his own turkeys, Boston butts and pork tenderloins for barbecue.

Although prices aren’t what they were 60 years ago, they haven’t gone up much. A house salad costs $2.75; a hot dog “all the way” is $2. Sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper and wine is served in plastic cups.

Don “Zero” Deason is a regular customer who has been coming to the restaurant since it opened. Deason went to Indian Trail High School – now Indian Trail Elementary – with the original Hinson’s owners.

“They’d come to school in a new Oldsmobile and I had to ride the school bus,” he said with a chuckle. “I graduated in ’55 and they graduated in ’53.”

Zero celebrated his own 60th birthday at Hinson’s 17 years ago. An old black-and-white picture of Donald and Ronald hangs on the wall.

Another Union County customer, Cindy Belk, calls herself a newbie because she’s been coming to Hinson’s for only five years.

“I come on Tuesdays and sometimes on Fridays,” she said. “I don’t have to stay at home by myself. I like everything, the people (and) the dynamite burgers.”

No one at Hinson’s is a stranger. Dennis Clark stops in on his way home from work.

“People have a good time, a peaceful time,” he said. “I stop in to see Phil and everybody … and the onion rings are great.”