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The First Generation Mels

Facts and Story by Mark "Kip" Groesbeck


In 1947, Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs opened the first drive-in restaurant in San Francisco, Mels drive-in. At the time, the drive-in restaurant concept was just beginning in America, and the agreeable weather of California was ideal for year round carhop service.

The original location of Mels drive-in was 140 South Van Ness Avenue. It consisted of ample grounds, attractively landscaped with the capacity for 110 cars, and a two-story rectangular building.  Anyone who has seen the 1973 film "American Graffiti" remembers the familiar neon sign at the gang's favorite hangout spot buzzing in the background, blazing "Mels drive-in."  Though the film was set in Modesto, California, the scenes at "Burger City" were actually filmed this first Mels drive-in location.

The restaurant was a hit from the start, generating almost the entire cost of the building and startup in the first month's sales alone. With a dining room capacity of 75 people, the interior was typical diner style with plenty of Formica, chrome, and comfortable booth seating. In the center of the main floor, a row of stools faced a circular dining counter that wrapped around two complete soda fountains and a battery of pie cases and coffee urns. The original cooker had the ability to turn out 180 hamburgers per minute.  A large staff of cooks, busboys and smartly uniformed servers and carhops kept the food moving and the customers happy.

Motivated by the success of their first drive-in, Weiss and Dobbs opened their second Mels on Mission near Geneva in San Francisco, followed by a third location in San Francisco 3355 Geary Blvd. Weiss' son Steven worked as a soda jerk at the Geary Blvd location in high school, and would later be inspired to open a Next Generation Mels drive in in the exact location where the original once stood.

In the mid-1950s California became the state with the highest rate of car ownership in the nation. Weiss and Dobbs began expanding the San Francisco car service concept restaurant into a successful chain. By 1954 the Mels franchise was pulling in about $4 million annually. Weiss estimated they were cooking up 15-20,000 hamburgers a day.  Mels became a fixture of contemporary life, with bright neon lighting, carhops, and a pre-fast food menu. In the 1950s and 60s you could find one or more Mels drive-ins throughout Northern California, locations stretched from San Francisco to Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, Walnut Creek and Salinas. 

The menu consisted of many more items than just the famous Melburger. Along with the cherished beverages, dessert and fountain specials, at just .85 cents the Chicken Pot Pie proved a favorite comfort food item . The choices of American-style food were almost endless, from Fried Spring Chicken ( just like Mom used to make), Roast Young Tom Turkey, Fried Jumbo Prawns, Chef's Salad Bowl,  to Thick Top Sirloin Steak & Eggs. Hearty appetites favored sandwiches such as the Mels Poor Boy, a full pound of choice ground beef on a quarter loaf of French bread served with salad.  

Mels continued to reign without major competition for almost 10 years, but the growing popularity of fast food  chains eventually triumphed over the carhop craze. By 1972 Weiss and Dobbs had sold the Mels franchise to the Foster's chain. It was during this year that the location manager for "American Graffiti" picked Mels as the location to represent the scripted drive-in called "Burger City." Sometime after filming,  Foster's filed for bankruptcy and the restaurant was sold again, and after a few more years in operation, Mels closed and was demolished in 1976.


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