Hamburgers were on the fire and rolls were on the counter at Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-in restaurant in Scotia.
It was nine minutes before 11 a.m., and the countdown had started. French fries, curly fries and onion rings were bobbing in bubbling hot oil. Coolers full of ice were ready for cups of Orange Crush, Pepsi and Mountain Dew. Sixty people were in line, waiting for the official start to the Thursday lunch hour and the unofficial start to warm weather.
“When we open, it’s well into spring and summer is on its way,” said Mark Lansing Jr., the restaurant’s general manager. “They just can’t wait any longer. . . . With today’s weather, this will be one of the best days of the whole season.”
With temperatures in the 60s, nobody complained about a 20-minute wait for a $6 Jackburger, a $2.25 hot dog or a $4.50 grilled chicken breast. Nobody was looking for any radical changes at the drive-in, which Jack Brennan opened in 1952.
“We understand that one of the reasons people come down year after year is because it’s the same and it reminds them of their childhood or when they were younger,” Lansing said. “So if you don’t change anything and keep it the same, they can come down and kind of walk through their pasts.”
For some, the hunger game started at 5:30 a.m. Jake Klehn, 17, of Scotia grabbed the first spot in line and was 10 minutes earlier than Lizzy Kenifil, 16, of Scotia, who said she has been No. 1 for the past six years. “I just wanted to beat her,” said Klehn, who after waiting nearly 51⁄2 hours in line played the gent and allowed Kenifil to order first.
Lizzy got her hot dog and curly fries around 10:52 a.m. The first “Subway!” shout took place at 10:54, when a big spender left the Jack’s crew a tip. The traditional “Thank You!” came back from all nine members of the navy blue-clad grill house detail.
Alex Qualey and Joe Williams were among the first visitors. Both are students in the Schenectady County Community College culinary arts department, and both wore their chef’s whites as they waited to place their orders.
“We just got tired of cooking,” said Qualey, who lives in Schenectady. “We wanted somebody to cook for us. The hospitality is fun. When you tip they say ‘Subway!’ I always tip, just to hear it. And it’s close to the school, so it’s lunch.”
Conor Corcoran of Scotia was at the grill. He quickly filled hamburger buns that counter man Jackson “Slim” Earman of Scotia dealt like cards in a poker game to people in line. Even with the constant shuffling, “Slim” was having a pretty good day.
“It’s seeing all the regulars,” he said. “I don’t even have to ask them their orders, I know what they need. And working with these guys, I haven’t seen them all winter.”
By 11 a.m., the line stretched to the front of Jack’s ice cream and milk shake building, located next to the grill house. The 40 picnic tables on pavement in front and on the side of the restaurant began to fill and “Subway!” salutes sounded every few minutes.
People waiting in line heard other parts of the Jumpin’ Jack’s language. A “701” is a fried chicken sandwich. A “Balantine” is a triple order of onion rings, Lansing said, and is an old call that remembers the Balantine beer symbol — three interlocking rings.
“A ‘whale fry’ is a fish fry, a ‘whistle fry’ is a shrimp fry,” Lansing said. “An ‘Indian’ is onion rings; that goes back to the French and Indian War. We used to call the fries “French’ and the onion rings “Indian” so you would have the French and the Indians.”
Jumpin’ Jack’s lore says the “Subway!” exchange may date to a deli in New York City. If someone left a tip at the deli, the guy would thank his benefactor by yelling “Subway!” and tell him he now had money to ride public transportation home. The bonus coins would save him a walk.
Everybody had reasons for making Thursday’s outdoor picnic.
“It’s my birthday, so I want to come here to get really, really good food,” said Amanda Seifert, now 16, of Scotia. “It’s a tradition, everybody and their mother comes here.”
“You see your friends, and it’s like, ‘I got my food first,’ ” added Amanda’s friend Sierra Suarez, 15, also of Scotia.
Other early season sandwich fans were teenagers. Some said they had secured permission notes from their parents — presented at school — to excuse them from classes.
Robert Hanlon, a spokesman for the Scotia-Glenville School Central School District, said seniors are allowed to sign out and leave campus for lunch breaks, and sign back in upon returns. For younger high school students, notes from parents explaining doctor or dentist visits or funeral attendance allow a student to leave campus; notes requesting departures for a Jumpin’ Jack’s opening day, Hanlon added, would not be honored.
Hanlon said 65 notes from parents came in Thursday; the usual number is between 20 and 30 in the 812-student high school.
Some Jack’s fans didn’t have to skip school.
“It’s just the thing to do if you live in Scotia,” said Marcia O’Hara, 72, as she waited in line with her husband Jack, 74. The wait for fish fries was not a problem; Jack said the line moved quickly.
“And you get fresh air,” Marcia said.
Nobody was giving bad reviews.
“It’s the best food we wait all winter for, from the day it closes until the day it opens,” said John Deis, 26, of Latham. “Especially this winter, when the weather was so good, we wondered why Jumpin’ Jack’s wasn’t open all the time.”
“It’s just a tradition,” said Bill Barner, 61, of Ballston Spa, who grew up in Scotia and has been coming to Jack’s for more than 50 years. “It’s like the opening day of baseball season. You just have to be here. It’s a kickoff for summer.”
Barner knew what he wanted, as he said goodbye to March and hello to warmer days ahead.
“I had a Jackburger, what else?” he said, of the restaurant’s famous double-pattie burger. “You have to have that on opening day.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.