For one of their first dates, Francisco Foley took his girlfriend, Hannah Szatko, to the iconic Northwest Side drive-in Superdawg, where he personally favored the hamburger.
Szatko was a picky eater, but tried the hot dog. Sitting in their car with the famous blue cardboard box, she “fell in love.” It soon became their go-to spot.
“It started to become a tradition,” Szatko said. “When something good happens, we go eat at Superdawg. When something difficult happens, we drown our tears at Superdawg.”
So when it came time to propose, Foley surprised Szatko by designing a Superdawg “Cinco De Mayo” special with an engagement ring. He called it the SuperLovie and made a poster that Superdawg management happily hung up over the parking lot. It advertised “a life full of happiness and joy” with a price of only “SAY YES.”
Ring firmly on her finger, Szatko took engagement photos with Foley under the neon lighting of Maurie and Flaurie, the famous 12-foot hot dogs flirtatiously winking at each other on the roof of Superdawg.
On Tuesday, Superdawg celebrates its 75th anniversary, and while it might not look romantic from the vantage point of a busy street corner, the drive-in holds surprising appeal as the site of countless first dates, more than a few engagements and catered weddings. And it is powered by a love story all its own, one that starts with the newlyweds who opened it in 1948.Today, Superdawg is still run by the same family. “It gives you the chance of having a private dining room without being in a fine-dine restaurant,” co-owner Lisa Drucker said one day recently, sitting in the Superdawg dining room. She and her husband, Don Drucker, described the nostalgic joys of ordering from electronic speakers and having your meal served to you by carhops.
“It’s a nice place to be alone in your car and get to know each other and become comfortable,” said Don Drucker. As if to prove his point, outside the window, three generations of a family were happily enjoying a meal in the open air on blue benches set near Milwaukee Avenue.
As a young man growing up in Chicago, Don Drucker told us he never heard of Superdawg until he was set up on a blind date with Lisa Drucker (then Berman) and she invited him over to lunch at her parents’ restaurant.
“It was kind of nutty here.” Don said. “I came during lunch on a Saturday.” Lisa chimed in with a smile: “To see your girlfriend!” He agreed. Soon after they were married, he became part of the Superdawg family, now acting as co-owner alongside Lisa and her brother Scott.
Lisa Drucker described her luck at meeting someone as interested in running the family business as she is. “We’re so lucky because our days are spent together,” she said. And she tells stories of other Superdawg romances: long-time employees, like the late Harold and Marie Kennett, who started working at Superdawg in the 50s and were married in 1961. They both worked at the drive-in until they retired.But none of this could have happened without the original Superdawg love story. On May 9, 1948, the late Maurie and Florence Berman, then high school sweethearts only a year married, opened Superdawg as a summer business to fund Maurie’s CPA education at Northwestern. Maurie graduated, but never practiced — instead, Superdawg began running yearlong. It quickly became an institution for families, for cyclists, and for many, many first dates.
Even as ‘50s style drive-ins shuttered and closed across the country, and even as COVID threatened small businesses – Superdawg still managed to thrive, in no small part due the passion of the family that still runs it and the same commitment to the original successful drive-in model.
Jim Bohlman remembers taking his bike up to Superdawg as a child in the 1960s. “It just evokes a lot of memories of how businesses used to be,” said Bohlman on a phone call, “of keeping customers engaged in the business.” Bohlman said that he and his wife of 47 years have spent many a birthday meal stopping by for a quick bite to eat. “’I’ve got an angel of a wife. I save a lot on electricity; she walks in the room and her halo lights up the room.” He also met his best friend, Bob Everly, at Superdawg.
And then there’s Cheryl Esken and Scott Gelman, who have been married for 34 years. When they met, Esken was in the radio business and Gelman was a concert promoter. Esken picked the first date, a concert, and Gelman picked the first dinner: Superdawg. It was, after all, his favorite place to eat. “We were in the car and he was so excited to show me that they actually bring it to the window,” said Esken.Esken and Gelman’s engagement, too, happened at Superdawg. After the birth of their only son, they brought baby Gelman to Superdawg as his first outing. Now grown, their son, Joey, is a superfan like his parents. For their anniversary, he purchased an actual Superdawg drive-in menu, like those customers typically order from within the comfort of their own car. The family proudly displays the menu inside their home.
New fiancés Francisco Foley and Hannah Szatko considered serving Superdawg at their upcoming wedding, but said they went with a different option. Still, they hope to make a Maurie and Flaurie cake topper for the nuptial cake.
They also plan to spend their first meal out as newlyweds there, the perfect ending to their big day.
Ahmed Ali Akbar is a James Beard-award winning food writer and audio journalist living in Chicago.