In the age of Netflix, Redbox and 3D digital projection, the Goochland Drive-In Theater is a small wonder.
The drive-in draws about 300 cars a night when the weather is good, says co-owner John Heidel, who launched the business in 2009 with his wife, Kristina.
Heidel, a Mississippi native with Roanoke roots, sold his dry cleaning business in 2007 to pursue the venture on 10 acres just off the Hadensville exit on Interstate 64. People scoffed at the time.
But the Heidels and the drive-in they built are still here.
BizSense caught up with Heidel to find out how he turned his drive-in dream into a real business. Below is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: Your first full year of operation is behind you. How has the experience been so far?
John Heidel: It has been fantastic. This isn’t anything anyone would think is a business to get into in the 21st century. The idea of a drive-in is very antiquated.
For us it was about pursuing a dream rather than the money, but we have been successful. We’ve had great attendance from a lot of folk who are experiencing drive-ins for the first time and others connecting the past to the present.
RBS: How do concessions play into the business?
RBS: What the heck is a Goochdog?
JH: It is an all-beef hotdog topped with mac and cheese and secret sauce on top of that. Sounds kind of gross, but I tell you it is tasty as all get out.
RBS: How did the idea to start a drive-in come about?
JH: I always had the idea of a drive-in in the back of my head and didn’t know the feasibility of it. But I had a deep passion about it.
I saw there was a void in the market. I had young kids, and trying to take them to an indoor theater was expensive and pretty much a futile experience. When I was a kid, my parents would take us to drive-ins, and looking around I couldn’t find one that was open.
So we did our due diligence to see if this is something we could make happen. After five or six years of research, in 2007 I sold the dry cleaning business and said, “Let’s go for this.”
RBS: What was the hardest part about starting up?
JH: Finding the land with the right zoning was a big hurdle. It was hurdle after hurdle, and at one point seemed like it was going to be more trouble than it was worth. Whenever we were about to give up, there would be a breakthrough. That happened through the whole process.
RBS: How did you fund everything?
JH: My wife and I fortunately have been very smart with our money. Rather than put that money into traditional investments, we decided to invest in ourselves and our dream. It was just as risky as anything else.
RBS: And has it started to pay off yet?
JH: Almost from the get-go, we started making money. We never had a losing month.
RBS: Have there been any kinks along the way?
JH: When we started in 2009, we had such a stormy season that we were way behind in construction. By the time it had passed, it was six weeks after we laid the concrete to the day we opened. We hadn’t trained any employees, didn’t know how to run the equipment, and we had plumbing issues. When we opened the gates up, we were backed up to the end of the road. Fortunately the customers understood this was our first night.
RBS: How many people do you have working each night?
JH: On a given night we have 18 to 20 staff. We are probably overstaffed, but we’d rather do that and make sure the customers are attended to.
RBS: Why Goochland?
JH: We live here and thought it would fit in, as the drive-in is part of rural America. Goochland has a history of not being pro-business, but we though there might be traction for what we wanted to do.
I don’t think anyone took us seriously. Only after the community got behind us did they see this would be a legitimate business.
A lot of people remember drive-ins on their downside in the ’70s, when they became seedy and full of riff-raff. We don’t tolerate riff-raff. We keep it family-orientated.
RBS: How are you are able to get first-run movies?
JH: We’ve proven that we can attract a crowd, so we are able to get them. You have to set a contract with each studio you want to show films for. It is a lengthy process, and it is not easy, but it is how the business works.
RBS: Have you thought about opening another drive-in?
JH: We are looking at different sites around Virginia as we speak. Building a drive-in is a slow process, and you’ve got to be methodical. A lot of people have tried to get in over the last 10 years and lost their shirts over it. You only get one chance to make it happen, and you have to make sure the location is correct, the employees represent the business well, the equipment is right and the food is excellent. There are a lot of links in the chain.
RBS: So you charge by the person. Do you catch people trying to sneak in the trunk?
JH: Only one time, and they were not very good at it. It was right when we opened, and we only had six cars on the lot and I see this teenager come crawling out the trunk. I said, “If you are going to do it, you got to put some effort into it.” We laughed about it and made them pay.