Les and Em's Drive-In reunion for staff and customers

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Les and Em's Drive-In was owned and operated by Lester and Emma Aulwes from 1958 to 1978. A reunion for customers and employees is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 20 at PromiseLand Winery in rural Guttenberg. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

In 1958, Guttenberg locals Emma and Lester Aulwes decided to buy a restaurant on Highway 52. For the next 20 years, they peeled pounds upon pounds of potatoes, made root beer floats, and sold burgers and fries as Les and Em’s Drive-In. 

Over the course of those two decades, the popular restaurant served hundreds, if not thousands, of customers and employed many young people from the area – including students who left school during the lunch hour to wait on customers. 

All of those customers, employees, friends and family are invited to a Les and Em’s reunion at PromiseLand Winery in rural Guttenberg on Sunday, Sept. 20, from 2 – 5 p.m. To encourage memories and stories, guests are encouraged to bring photos from their days at Les and Em’s. Musical entertainment for the reunion will be provided by a 1950s and 60s tribute band known as Rockin’ Daddies.

“Anyone who worked there during those twenty years is invited, along with their significant other, and also anyone who visited at the drive-in,” said Shirley (Wachendorf) Palmer, a Les and Em’s employee who is helping to organize the reunion. “I've had many ask me, ‘I bought ice cream, can I come too?’ So I'm not turning anyone away as the winery is open to the public,” she told The Press. 

Palmer is one of seven Wachendorfs who worked at Les and Em's. “I'm the oldest of the 14 of us and to say that half of us worked there is something I'm very proud of,” she said. “I worked in the back kitchen, where I helped Em peel those 800 pound bags of potatoes.  I also dressed the buns for the hamburgers, made malts and shakes.”

She’s not kidding. In a 2003 interview with Press reporter Janis O’Neill, the late Emma Aulwes recalled, “We peeled 800 pounds of potatoes on weekends. We put them in 30-gallon containers. Sometimes we had to peel more on Sunday night when we ran out.” According to O’Neill’s report, peeling potatoes out back was Emma’s ‘rest period’ from the chaos inside. 

The drive-in averaged six indoor employees and six car hops each year. Concerned for their safety, Les drove each employee home after work and made sure they went inside. Whatever happened after that was their parents’ responsibility.

“I myself worked there four summers. I was 15 when I started,” Palmer recalls. She also remembers ketchup fights with Emma, who squirted the red paste from a plastic bottle once in a while, just for fun. The kids would squirt right back, but if Les was anywhere in sight, the games were off. 

The drive-in was open 7-11 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday nights it was open even later. Les and Em’s Drive-in was the place to be following dances at Lakeside Ballroom, when Emma and her staff worked until everyone was fed. “I always said this was the best job I ever had, and I would have worked for free if I had to,” remembers Palmer. “It was the teen hangout and the jukebox music brought many memories to us all.”

Lester and Emma’s own four children also worked at the drive-in. Legend has it the Aulwes’ started the business so their late son, Bill, could go to college. Bill worked one summer at the drive-in and left the rest to his mother. Their daughter Kay Becker and son Gary still reside in Guttenberg, and their son Lonnie lives in Illinois. 

Emma retired in 1978, after the drive-in was sold. She died in 2011 at the age of 92. Les died at the age of 79 in 1995. 

While reminiscing recently over a glass of wine, Palmer and several other Les and Em’s employees discussed a great gathering of the whole crew. Palmer picked a date for the reunion, posted it online, and has had a resounding response. “I think it will be a fantastic turn out,” she says. 

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