By JAMES E. CASTO ∙ For The State Journal
HUNTINGTON — For more than 50 years, the giant-sized root beer mug perched atop the Frostop Drive-In, 1449 Hal Greer Blvd., has been an iconic part of the Huntington landscape.
According to co-owner Marilyn Murdock of Huntington, the drive-in was opened in 1959 by her father, Rupert McGinnis, and her uncle, William Warnock.
"They were thinking about opening an ice cream stand or maybe something like that," Murdock explained. "Then they heard about the Frostop Drive-Ins that were being built in other cities about that time. They had a hunch that a drive-in like that might be a hit in Huntington."
Their hunch proved right on target. Today, the Frostop is a mecca for hot dog fans and root beer lovers.
The drive-in's hot dogs are very much a hometown product, Murdock said. "From the first, we've always used Heiner's brand hot dog buns and franks from S.S. Logan Packing Co. right here in Huntington." The restaurant's tasty root beer is whipped up on site in big batches, she said. "We have a vat where we pour in the syrup and the sugar and then we stir and stir it with big paddles before we start the carbonation process."
Frostop still offers its customers the traditional curbside service that was so much a part of life in the 1950s. There's no room in the tiny building for indoor seating, but in recent years it's placed a few umbrella tables on the lot.
Located across Hal Greer Boulevard from Cabell Huntington Hospital, the drive-in attracts a daily stream of hungry hospital visitors and staff members.
"They walk across the street and often sit at the umbrella tables," Murdock says. "We also offer delivery services to the hospital."
Rupert McGinnis ran the drive-in until his death in 1980, and then his widow, Marion McGinnis, took over for him. At that point, she bought Warnock's share of the business.
Marilyn Murdock is a retired English teacher. Her sister, Bing Murphy, works as an administrator at Charleston Area Medical Center. When their mother died in 1996, the two sisters suddenly found themselves owning a restaurant they knew surprisingly little about and had no training to run.
"When we were young and would go to the restaurant with our father, he would put us to work washing mugs. It seemed there were always mugs to be washed," Murdock says. "But we never worked at the restaurant as a regular thing."
She says she and her sister had lots to learn and not much time to learn it in. And she credits the restaurant's long-time employees with giving them a quick education in restaurant operation.
"We've been blessed with some wonderful employees over the years."
One of those veteran employees is Frostop Manager Larry Turner, who has been at the drive-in since 1984. Before that, he worked at a fast-food chain, and he says he values the refreshingly different atmosphere he found when he came to Frostop.
In the late 1980s, a McDonald's opened next door to Frostop, and some of the drive-in's loyal customers worried how it would fare against the competition the McDonald's would bring.
Those fears proved groundless, Murdock says.
"Actually, it proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to us. They've helped us attract customers from the interstate. People see the McDonald's sign on I-64 and get off to eat there, but as they drive along they see us and decide to give us a try."
Frostop was once a popular chain of eateries with many locations nationwide, but over the years the number of places with the colorful rooftop root beer mugs has dwindled.
Murdock voices a hope that the Huntington Frostop will continue welcoming customers for years to come.
"We've grown up with it and hope maybe our kids will want to run it some day. We've got a lot of memories in this place."