Meet You There


September, 2019

As much as she had loved Jack’s Drive-In growing up, current co-owner Mandy O’Donnell never really liked the French fries. So, when she and her husband, Steven Kenworthy, took over the business in 2008, one of their first orders of business was to taste-test a new, more expensive fry that stayed crispier longer. Even though they charged the same price as the original fries, within the first three months, O’Donnell and Kenworthy had received so many complaints from customers about changing the fries that they had no choice but to comply. “Lesson learned,” laughs Kenworthy, retelling the story. “Don’t change things that are really traditional.”

For those who are unaware, which is likely no one in and around Spruce Grove, Jack’s Drive-In is a 1950s-style, drive-in diner. Traveling along Parkland Highway, it’s impossible to miss the little red building with the inverted roof–a design that original owners Jack Clarke and Larry Campbell knew would catch the eye. Jack’s serves all the usual suspects like burgers, hotdogs, and of course, their famous fries. But its real specialty is ice cream. You can get anything from soft-serve cones to sundaes and milkshakes to banana splits. In fact, the whole concept of Jack’s begins with ice cream.

In 1961, grade-school friends Jack Clarke and Larry Campbell ran into each other by chance while both honeymooning in Great Falls, Montana. The two old friends reconnected and shortly after, Campbell brought Clarke out to Spruce Grove to show him the incredible appetite people had for ice cream at a nearby corner store, where the lineup was all the way down the block. At this time, Spruce Grove was still very much a small farming community that had yet to be invaded by big fast food chains like A&W and McDonald’s. The two friends knew the time was right to open up a restaurant, and thus, Jack’s was born.

The land that Jack’s sits on was purchased for $700 dollars from a crushing mill that was located immediately to the east. Over the course of just three months, Clarke and Campbell erected Jack’s by themselves, and in June 1961, the grand opening was held with then Spruce Grove Mayor, John Allen Gosset, in attendance. The drive-in was an immediate hit with Spruce Grove locals. Uniformed carhops served fresh, hand-made hamburgers and home-cut fries right to customer’s car windows, and children flocked to the take-out windows on the front of the building where Jack’s now famous jumbo-sized soft serve ice cream cones were served.

After the first summer of operation, Clarke parted ways with the restaurant, leaving Campbell and his wife Marcel the sole owners of the drive-in until they left the business as well in the fall of 1962. From that point until 2008, a string of three different families owned and operated Jack’s, each leaving a legacy behind, whether that was an indoor seating area, paved parking lot, or year-round service.

“The owners have always been very diligent about reinvesting into it and trying to keep it going, and it’s worked,” says Kenworthy.

While nearly 60 years have passed since Jack’s served its first customers, its basic menu has stayed the same. Unlike most Alberta businesses that tend to relocate over time, Jack’s continues to operate at the same spot since the start. “There’s been a consistency to the operation that has kept it going,” says Kenworthy.

But Jack’s enduring success is not only due to the hard work of its owners. The residents of Spruce Grove are as much responsible. Since its humble beginnings, Jack’s has always been a meeting place for people in and outside of the community. It’s a place where first dates happen, where grandpa takes the grandkids for ice cream cones, or where families stop every summer for lunch on their way
to the lake.

“There’s a lot of feeling attached to Jack’s,” says Kenworthy. So much so, that when a new law office was being constructed next to the diner, worried customers were constantly calling in a panic asking if the drive-in was going to be torn down. “The locals have called it their own and have been incredibly supportive and that’s enabled it to become this sort of icon that people can depend on.”

Due to the immense popularity of Jack’s, Kenworthy says that many people have contacted him and O’Donnell over the years about opening another location. But, the closest that Jack’s ever came to expanding was when it briefly took part in a local business called Sweet Street which intended to become a miniature shopping mall for food and drink businesses where you could buy a variety of different products including Jack’s ice creams and milkshakes.

Unfortunately, after the first six months, Sweet Street lost a couple of the businesses. While Jack’s held on the longest, it too eventually parted ways with Sweet Street. “It just wasn’t taking off like we’d hoped,” explains Kenworthy. Since then, Jack’s has had more success with other ventures such as O’Donnell Farm Corn Fritters, which Kenworthy and O’Donnell started when they bought the required cooking equipment off of Jack’s long-time corn fritter provider when it was closing up shop.

As for the future of Jack’s, the drive-in currently finds itself in the middle of a downtown revitalization project. But don’t worry, O’Donnell is one of the board members overseeing the venture in order to ensure that Jack’s best interests are represented. As for the building itself, Kenworthy says keeping the diner up to standards without changing its core is what’s most important.

“Keeping a 60-year-old building functioning and operating is a challenge in itself,” says Kenworthy. “But Jack’s isn’t going anywhere.” t7x

Jack’s Drive-In at a glance

Location: 123 1st Avenue, Spruce Grove

Specialty: Ice cream and customer service

Fun fact: Since opening, Jack’s has only ever been operated by local family owners