Earlier this summer, we received a letter from Robin, who wrote "Hey, What's the Deal with..." asking,
For the past year, I have occasionally driven past a disturbing/inviting site along Highway 7 in St. Louis Park. Tidy, well-lit, and well-groomed is the Galaxy Drive In. I salivate for a burger and fries under the open sky above the smooth asphalt. It looks open... but it is void of humans, leaving my belly void of hope for that burger and fries. Why does the Galaxy continue to beckon me by looking open but only taunting me with ultimately empty counters?
Honestly, we kinda thought Robin’s description of a pristine ghost drive-in illuminated for years was exaggerated until we saw it firsthand.
Glowing like a neon hallucination in the friscalating dusklight, punctuated by the occasional alien, the Galaxy Drive In makes... no sense. Aesthetically it’s a portal between 1953 and 1988. Aside from aloof neighborhood street traffic, no humans can be found. No windows are broken, and the lawn is perfectly manicured. Signs suggest ordering fried chicken and cheeseburgers you imagine dripping with nostalgia, ones that taste better than any found in the real world.
This is where Steven Schussler comes into play, whether or not he realizes it. He bought this neighborhood joint in 2009. The drive-in dates back to 1951 and was most recently called Wagner’s; it was Schussler who renamed it the Galaxy. Across the street is his branding firm, Schussler Creative Inc., which has “Inventions, Ideas, Contraptions, and Dreams” scrawled across the front in block letters.
As its head, Schussler has become a sort of John Hammond-meets-Willy Wonka figure, working with a budget Trump would love to squander. Through his work, he’s developed an intimidating reputation as a passionate world-builder who’s a stickler for details. When he felt its quality of service was slipping, he refused to reopen the drive-in for the season in 2016. And, for three whole days that summer, the Galaxy was for sale.
“I got sick to my stomach,” he says. “I’m very passionate about it. I put it up for sale for a couple days and I got very upset when I saw the sign, and I got the calls from people thinking that we were desperate.”
“It’s never been about money, which is 99 percent of everybody else in the world. I just really want to make that clear, because people ask all the time,” he reiterated. “It breaks my heart.”
For years, Schussler has instead chosen an unlikely path. “I cut the lawn. I use the sprinklers. I take the snow off and salt it in the winter. I paint it every spring. I do amazing things. It costs me $130,000 a year to close it,” he laughs. “$130,000 a year to keep it closed—it’s unbelievable! Nobody would believe this!”
By this point he’s accustomed to having people complaining—pleading, even—to him about the place’s closure. The Galaxy once had an irreplicable atmosphere celebrating intergalactic pal-ship like few places in this solar system. They miss not-so-little things like playing a giant chess board, and smaller details like ice cream cones.
“So you set yourself up and you’re like, ‘Why don’t you sell it?’ Well, first of all, it’s been in the neighborhood for over 65 years, okay? Kids, and their families, and their grandparents love the chess set and the checkers set and the overall feeling of the old drive-ins. That’s why I built it and put over a million and a half dollars into it—now close to a million-seven into it—and all I want to do is find a great operator who wants to make a lot of money.”
Though money’s not an issue, it comes up a lot. Meeting his expectations will be difficult. Over his career Schussler founded the Rainforest Cafe, establishing 45 of those wildly popular themed eateries across three continents while running five of Disney World Orlando’s top restaurants. “My standards were born out of what was created that we’ve been successful with.” The man talks a big game because he’s bona fide.
“I decided to close it until we found the right people, and the right combination, and the right menu, the right food, the right operators... and for my money, it was worth spending $130,000 a year to keep it closed, to not serve a bad product or have bad service. You don’t go to a drive-in and wait 40 minutes for a hamburger and French fries. At the end, that’s what happened.”
Right though Schussler is from a certain standpoint, translating such an uncompromising sense of vision to a one-off, seasonal drive-in located in suburban Minnesota may well prove the hitch in this giddy-up.
Most of us come from a different world than Steven Schussler, where money is of consequence, and eventually we must compromise or sell what we care about. But it’s easy to see the story of the Galaxy Drive In as more than the thing itself. It’s become an issue of emotion, which is universally identifiable. We all have things we delay parting with out of fear that those destined to care for them won’t do so properly. Maybe, for you, it was your first car: It might not be as nice as the day you got it, but you can still feel potential and magic in it. How long did you pour money into it until someone convinced you to let go? Did you ever take it to a drive-in, radiant on the horizon?
It seems like Schussler has built the Galaxy into this idea, deep in his heart. “I’m willing to give up 50 percent of my ownership in the property and the business just to find the right guy or woman or team, and I’m very upset by the fact that I can’t.” At least giving up half ownership is the beginning of getting the drive-in open again. If only there were someone who met his standards...
Schussler’s always entertaining offers. Contact him at [email protected].
In Hey, What’s the Deal With... we’re tackling everyday oddities, random curiosities, and what-the-actual-fuck mysteries about life in the Twin Cities. Got a pressing but somewhat trivial Q about something you saw, heard, or thought about while stuck in traffic?Email [email protected], and our crack investigative team just might try to figure it out.
Previously in Hey, What's the Deal With...
- Hey, what's the deal with those strange symbols in the sidewalks outside St. Paul's Bad Weather Brewing?
- Hey, what's the deal with those blob statues on the federal courthouse lawn?
- Hey, what’s the deal with that Big Boy statue on top of Big V's?
- Hey, what’s the deal with those strange bird noises under Camden Bridge?