Recently I received a Facebook question from a long time ago co-worker at Stewart’s Root Beer stand, JoAnn, daughter of the owner, a really great man, Joe Palko. She asked, “Jim, do you remember . . .”

To which I replied:

Do I remember? Absolutely, like it was just yesterday. Some of my happiest teen and young adult memories were over the many years of working there with you and your wonderful family, especially Joe who was like a father to us tray hops (and counter men). You roped off the front parking slots on my 1965 wedding day for the bridal party to make a grand entrance and stop for root beers that day! He even offered to give me some money if I needed it for my prom night (thanks to the tips working there, I thanked him for that fatherly offer but turned him down – never to forget that moment). So much of my career success came from the working there those many years, learning the lessons of customer service, how to speak with strangers like friends, service = generous tips a valuable lesson in life, hard work = success, and so much more.

“Oh those ice cold frosty mugs!”

I loved working for Joe (Palko, father to JoAnn & Kenny, wife to Ann). He treated all his workers with respect and strong customer service minded discipline. I loved wearing the required black bow tie, both behind the counter and as a tray-hop, most used every excuse to take that tie off, at least until Joe caught them and insisted it be put back on as part of ‘the uniform’. Joe was very, very precise and careful with his product and service. In the back area there was a huge stainless steel tank that was used to take the very concentrated root beer syrup (true Stewart’s). As he carefully added just the right amounts of sugar and syrup to that tank, each stainless steel pail of water was filled to a fine pencil mark, never over that mark (which would have multiplied the resultant root beer base and increased his profit), never under that mark, but precisely to his trained eye, before being poured gently into the huge vat of brown root beer syrup, perfect to keep the flavor of the foamy final root beer drink consistent and flavorful. His hamburger meet patties were never frozen, but delivered fresh and refrigerated until put onto the grill for each order (nothing made ahead in this business). One day Joe was taking a delivery of that meat and business was slow mid-afternoon. He so proudly showed off that burger to me, a tray-hop. He cooked that patty without any salt or pepper or anything else, just pure red beef, offered it to me on a fresh bun (another ‘most important’ part of the final product) to taste and savor under his very proud and watchful eye. I can hear his words even today, 60 years later, as he said, “Now that’s what a burger is meant to taste like! ” He was so right – it was plain and delicious, and served with family pride in each and every one that went out that window to be tray-ed out to the driver’s window of the waiting car’s load of customers, regulars who came back all the time driven by that attention to detail. And I remember . . .

Stewart’s as it looked back in Fords, NJ in early 1960’s

continued . . . those hot dog and hamburger buns, they were always ‘today fresh’, the real secret to their taste and success. Joe kept a paper notebook (remember that, JoAnn?) where he recorded at the end of every day how much roll was used and the weather of the day. Then he would look at tomorrow’s weather forecast, refer back to that date range the year before as recorded 365 days ago) and use his judgement to call in that night’s bread order for the following morning’s delivery. Talk about attention to detail! Oh, such great memories and what a wonderful place for teens (and into young adults with families to support) to work. Tony, the local thesbian who practiced his upcoming play lines each night between waiting on cars. Rich, the local policeman who worked there so many years as a side job. How I remember Kenny and I competing for cars when we agreed to side-line the assigned spaces to ‘take as much as you can service’ in a free for all style, trying to time our running trips to distant cars with orders that would be coming out to on the counter trays with foamy beer mugs to be delivered. And beware taking on too much such that pending trays would be sitting too long which got Joe’s attention and wrath to the assigned tray-hop. That running around during a busy lunch hour on a hot Summer day was challenging and so much fun back then when we had the legs for it and energy to engage in fun competition. And in bad weather or lull hours, there was the checker board game in progress that two of us would attend to in between taking and delivering orders! Work was hard, fun and very fulfilling money wise, with instant tip rewards IF we gave the best service. Oh, and be sure to count those glasses when you went to pick up the finished tray to be sure somebody hadn’t ‘forgotten’ some glass in the back seat, especially the colorful ‘baby mugs’ that were in demand. At night’s end, the many glasses were counted and any missing inventory had to be paid for out of our own pockets, something I don’t every recall having to pay up, either because the desired attention to detail was done with each paid order, or Joe didn’t enforce it, can’t recall which. It was a challenge to address the ‘missing mug’ issue with a customer without causing insult or conflict (and loosing a good tip). Of special attraction was the mug with that colorful Stewart’s logo on it.

And this is what a tray order and that famous mug looked like . . . and when I worked behind the counter (on day’s I wasn’t tray-hopping), we would be able to handle with one hand eight of those mugs filled with foam headed root beer


A heavy tray with those mugs, to hang on the driver’s car window which had to be just so high to catch the hanger part of the tray

and that mug which too often was not on the final paid for tray to be taken off the driver’s car window . . . especially if the mug was one with the orange logo decal on it – a prized possession if you could get away with it! The challenge included how to inquire “Is there another mug in there?” after the tip had been collected so as not to offend but to still get that mug back.

That prized collector’s item, a decal-ed genuine Stewart’s mug, a ‘steal’!

Ah yes, I enjoyed those great hard but very profitable days, working there with your wonderful family for many of my formative years, sometimes taking fun from my students who came in from my ‘day job’ of teaching high school math, itself an interesting challenge. Even then, I felt proud to be giving them a lesson ‘out of the classroom’ in the meaning of hard work and customer courtesy.

JoAnn, I remember fondly those teen years, especially running the lot with your brother, Kenny, on those hot Fords, NJ Summer days!

– Jim Gleason
February 2019

PS: Shortly after responding to JoAnn’s question, I learned that her brother and my friend, Kenny, had passed away just last year. My condolences to his wife, Trudy and family. He was a dear friend and will remain in my happy early days of memories even this half century later.