By Molly Congdon
CLIFTON PARK — Every April — like clockwork — the gigantic red, white and blue striped umbrellas are opened, providing much-needed shade to the customers who frequent the Country Drive-In (1455 Crescent Vischer Ferry Road) throughout the steamy, sunburnt months of summer. Then, when the air starts to cool at the end of September, they are closed until next season.
For the past 46 years, this place has attracted residents and kept them coming back for more.
Since 1969, the ownership has changed hands a few times, but the soul of this roadside restaurant has remained the same.
Lena Riberdy started here when she was 14, worked her way up to the position of manager, and now she co-owns the business with partner Hugh Marica.
The food industry isn’t for everyone, but for Riberdy, it’s been nothing but enjoyable and rewarding. “I love my job; I can honestly say I get up and want to go to work every day,” Riberdy said. “I love my customers, my employees. It’s really fast-paced and this community is super friendly, and when you look up and see the same faces at the window, day after day, week after week, you just feel like you’ve accomplished something; they’re back, they’re coming back.”
She remembers her first day at CDI like it was yesterday, a 12-hour shift from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
That day she sliced 150 pounds of onions by hand for onion rings and skinned countless fish. “It was the longest day ever,” Riberdy said. “But I actually left excited, knowing that I had to go back the next morning at 9 and I was totally fine with it.”
Through the years, the menu has essentially remained the same; the style of food is what one would’ve come across back in the 1950s at a traditional drive-in restaurant: hot dogs, hamburgers, steak sandwiches, sausage sandwiches, fish fry, milkshakes, malts, ice cream sodas, etc. “We’ve added but we’ve never taken away,” Riberdy said. “Our homemade onion rings are by far our number one best food seller. There’s no secret recipe, it’s just that they are done every day, hand-dipped and breaded.”
There is no hard ice cream to be found, it’s only standard summer soft-serve at this joint. All year long, people can swing by Friendly’s or Stewart’s and snag hard ice cream; soft-serve — for the most part — can be licked, slurped and savored only when the weather is warm.
“Our ice cream business is simple but great,” Riberdy said. “We don’t have the 85 flavors that everyone else advertises, we have the basic chocolate, vanilla, twist, we run a special flavor every week, a sherbet flavor every week, a yogurt and a lactose/dairy-free dole whip.”
She continued: “We have a million different toppings, but as for flavors we keep it simple. We are good at what we do. Nothing’s broken, so why change it?”
Country Drive-In is family-oriented, inside and out. “The atmosphere is so family-friendly,” Riberdy said. “It’s more of an outing than just going out to eat; this is a community place.”
The staff is like a family as well. There are a total of 56 employees, ranging from the ages of 15 to 63.
Kristen Jordan, who graduated from Shenendehowa a couple of years ago and now attends Boston College, has been working at CDI for the past five years. “I love ice cream,” she said with a laugh. “But I really love the people who work here; it’s a family. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
The popularity of an old-school themed drive-in transcends generations; businesses come and go, but memories never die. “Your parents bring you here and then you bring your kids here. We’ve stuck to our roots because it works,” Riberdy said. “I had a lady come here the other day from North Carolina, and literally her ride picked her up at the Albany Airport and this is where she came; she hadn’t been home in two years and she came straight here.”
Country Drive-In, like an old photo album, brings people back to younger years, happy times and the laughter they’ve shared with loved ones.
Let’s face it, none of us like to alter what we know; in fact, we feel a deep desire to preserve the past. “If I was to put purple, green and yellow umbrellas out, customers would be like, ’What’s going on?’” Riberdy said. “Change is hard for people to accept.”
The Country Drive-In continues to thrive as an old-fashioned establishment, despite being surrounded by a world saturated in modernity; however, it has managed to stay ahead of the curve by accommodating those with food allergies.
“We have really started catering to the gluten-free community over the past couple of years; we carry a lot of gluten-free items and we are very careful with our preparation of anything that is gluten-free,” Riberdy said. “We have designated one of our fryers to only gluten-free. It’s such a large community that continues to grow.”
Gluten-free rolls can be substituted with any sandwich, delicious crispy (a difficult feat in a gluten-less world) chicken tenders are fried to perfection, gluten-free grilled cheeses are served hot, french fries are cooked without contamination and — probably the most exciting feature — gluten-free ice cream cones will make someone with celiac feel normal again. (Gosh, it must be so nice to ditch the dish and eat the cone.)
Last year they put in the dole-whip, which provides an option for those that are required to eat lactose- and dairy-free. “There’s a lot of kids who are lactose- and dairy-free; they come with their siblings and would have to watch them eat,” Riberdy said. “The dole whip is a mix between a sorbet and a sherbet and we serve vanilla and fruit flavors.”
She continued: “This is a family place; if you can’t all come and enjoy it, it takes a little bit away from what it’s supposed to be about. We don’t have a lot of choices, but we have enough to satisfy everybody.”