LEWISTON — Carhops, soda jerks and bun dressers. Terminology from a very different era, perhaps, but very much a part of Gail Lawrence’s life even today. She’s the former owner and permanent guardian of Val’s Root Beer Drive-In, a fixture in the city since 1959.

Originally opened as an A&W Root Beer franchise by John Wheeler of Vermont, Lawrence started working there the day after she turned 14. The man inside, who turned out to be the owner, asked how old she was, which quickly led to — can you work tonight?

Gail Lawrence sits Friday in front of Val’s Drive-In in Lewiston. Her family has owned the business since the 1970s when they purchased the  then-A&W Root Beer franchise. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“I said I sure can!” Lawrence replied. “I couldn’t believe that I was a carhop at Val’s. I made a whole $5.50 in tips, which was a lot back then because it was only 5 cents and 10 cents for root beer.”

The Val in Val’s Drive-In was actually her father, Val Gregoire, who worked for Wheeler for a while and bought the business in 1974.

The royalty fees for the franchise were too much for Gregoire, who decided to strike out on his own. He mixed up his own recipe for root beer and voila, Val’s Root Beer was born.

“So, he had a sign made Val’s Root Beer,” Lawrence explained. “It is Val’s Root Beer Drive-In but we just put drive-in. So many people today don’t like root beer.”


The original paint scheme was orange and brown — a holdover from A&W. For the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the Gregoires painted the business red, white and blue and they haven’t turned back since.

Yes, red is a favorite Gregoire family color.


Tunes from the ’60s and ’70s is ever-present on the drive-in’s outside speakers, but not obnoxious. The menu hasn’t changed much over the years, although there are some uniquely Maine items and specials come and go as a way of drawing customers in.

“Our prices have always been low,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s unique. How many drive-ins do you know where the girls or guys come out to your car?”

Even with rising costs, Lawrence said they have to keep prices down, even if it means they have to eat the difference.


About 10 years ago, Lawrence’s son Chris, who now owns the business, installed batting cages as a way to bring added value to the drive-in, to generate a little extra revenue.

Val’s used to be open until midnight, especially when the Lewiston Drive-In was around, just down Sabattus Street where Country Lane Homes and Country Lane Estates are today. Lawrence remembers when the 1,000-car-capacity movie venue would let out. “That was the busiest time . . . it was so packed. And we would be so busy at 11:30 to midnight. The boss would always say ‘take them, take those cars,’ and sometimes we didn’t get home until 1 a.m.”

The root beer on tap is still her father’s recipe but it’s no longer served in frosty mugs. Blame that largely on technology advances in the automotive industry — power windows specifically.

In the old days, carhops would bring out a tray, which attached to a partially rolled down window. “We’d put their tray on, we had these nice big heavy mugs – very rarely did you lose a mug,” Lawrence recounted. But as vehicles transitioned to electric windows, Lawrence said they started losing 30 to 40 mugs a day.

“Yup, they just couldn’t operate the windows and they’d just say whoops sorry. I don’t know maybe it was at the wrong height for them so they would hit it and it would go down so the tray would fall off.”

Val’s stopped using mugs altogether when the COVID-19 pandemic set in.



While so many businesses struggled during the pandemic, Val’s quickly became a go-to spot for food. “We were the perfect setup. Perfect,” Lawrence said. “You drive up, you don’t get out of your car.” Other “to-go” businesses she said would hand you your order and you were gone.

“We’d have someone wait on you, of course they had to wear a mask, but they would wait on you and you got to have all your food in the car with your family, you know, so they loved that. We were the busiest we have ever, ever been in our lives,” Lawrence remembered. “It was hard, we had to hire extra help, there were eight to 12 carhops working at all times.”

Word spread quickly and the phone started ringing from other Maine businesses, and some from Massachusetts, asking how Val’s system worked. Lawrence said she happily obliged, offering as much help as she knew how.


Gail Lawrence’s mother and father’s ancestors migrated from France to Canada and moved to Maine. And like thousands of other immigrants, both sides of the family all worked in Lewiston’s mills.


Val Gregoire was a career fireman in Lewiston and at age 40 started working at the drive-in before buying it. Lawrence said her father followed a path taken by many other Franco-Americans — owning their own business.

“My entire family’s worked here – we are all Franco-Americans. I happened to marry a non-Franco, that’s why my last name is Lawrence,” she explained.

The influence never left as Val’s proudly serves poutine, which Lawrence said is very popular. On Fridays, many Franco-Americans still like fish, so Val’s happily obliges, offering clam cakes and even Maine’s ubiquitous lobster rolls.


Some may remember the carhops on roller skates. But they must have been thinking about another drive-in, because Lawrence said it never happened at Val’s.

“No, never and people say, ‘I remember you were on roller skates’ and we honestly never were. I think it’s in their minds from the movies,” Lawrence surmised.



Val Gregoire 1950

In April 1951, Val Gregoire was an 18-year-old sailor on shore leave from the USS Macon in Boston when he was mugged. He awoke to find his pants and wallet missing. It’s a story that’s legendary in the Gregoire family.

The woman he would marry, Jeannette, had driven down with her mother to spend the day with her then beau. She recounted in an interview with the Sun Journal in 2007 that Val was wearing the classic Navy bell bottoms — the ones with buttons instead of a zipper.

Gregoire made it back to his ship, but without pants and his identification, was thrown into the brig for the night, according to his daughter, Gail.

Fifty-six years to the day later, a worker demolishing Boston’s Paramount Theatre found the wallet in a wall. He took it home and his wife insisted they find the rightful owner. Internet searches and calls to Gregoire names in Maine eventually led to the Lewiston family and the wallet arrived shortly after in the mail.

Inside were the remnants of the wallet, an Armed Forces Liberty Pass dated April 11, 1951, his Navy ID, a copy of his birth certificate, photos of his family and friends and a laminated picture of his girlfriend, Jeannette. Unfortunately, the discovery came after Val Gregoire’s death in 2003 from complications from a kidney transplant. The contents of the wallet are now treasured family mementos.


Contents of Val Gregoire’s wallet found in Boston 56 years after he was mugged on shore leave.


Chris Lawrence bought Val’s Drive-In from his mother in 2006 and is the third generation of the extended Gregoire family to own and operate the business. But Mom still works every day, doting on the 12 to 15 carhops and insuring they maintain a neat appearance and take good care of the customers.

After 55 years at Val’s, Lawrence doesn’t see herself going anywhere, anytime soon.

What Gail Lawrence said she cherishes most from all that time is family. “My family working, everyone together. We call it the Gregoire family,” she said proudly. “My grandmother was 91 and she was still flipping burgers. All my nieces, there might be one or two out of a 32-member family . . . all but two maybe have worked here. We’re really blessed to have that.”

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