South of the Border: Adios, Senor Schafer
Alan Schafer, the man who created one of the greatest tourist traps in history, died on July 19 from leukemia at age 87. Schafer was the promotional genius behind South of the Border, I-95's most prominent vacation stop.
Schafer's $40 million business started 51 years ago as a tiny beer stand just south of the North Carolina border. His brilliant billboard strategy and ceaseless development of Mexican-themed stores, restaurants and entertainments made this place on the interstate a marvel -- consistently chosen as one of Roadside America's Seven Wonders.
Schafer was a Hero of the Highway, constantly at work to improve SOB, adding miniature golf courses, expanding into video poker, then quickly retrenching when the state made the game illegal.
SOB's 750 employees, dubbed "pedros," are mourning the loss of their leader. A memorial service is being held by Schafer's family today. The Dirty Old Man Shop will close for a few hours, the Fireworks Store will issue a respectful pyrotechnic salute, and the American flag will remain lowered at half mast over the El Drug Store (Actually, we don't know what they're planning)....
While the family owns SOB, no obvious successor has been promoted to build on the vision. We're keeping an eye on this National Treasure. Rumors the 250 billboards were taken down this season turned out to be false; they simply sport a new neon color scheme. Schafer's illness may help explain other recent reports from visitors of erratic service quality at SOB. The complaints have mainly concerned the motel and Honeymoon package. But SOB's motel room 305 is still haunted -- a bonus from our perspective. And really, how much comfort can you expect in the shadow of a giant Mexican sombrero?[07/22/2001]
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