Toronto couple trades tech jobs for a drive-in – The Globe and Mail

Drew Downs and Dawn Laing at the Mustang Drive-In in Prince Edward County.

Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Drew Downs and Dawn Laing were in their car, wondering what to do with their lives.

For months in 2019, Ms. Laing said, they had been asking themselves the kind of questions that have since surfaced for many people during the pandemic: “ ‘What are we doing? Why are we doing the things in the world that we’re doing? Are we happy?’ In reality we were working 24/7.”

Feeling burned out from working at a tech-accessories company in Toronto that Mr. Downs had co-founded, they were staying at a cottage in Prince Edward County. There, they spotted a drive-in theatre and pulled in to watch a movie. By the time the movie was over, Mr. Downs and Ms. Laing had found the answer they were looking for.

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“Drew was like, ‘We could totally do this,’ ” Ms. Laing said. “This” meant buying the drive-in and completely transforming their lives.

As luck would have it, the owners of the Mustang Drive-In, Paul and Nancy Peterson, were ready to sell after running the drive-in for three decades.

“They’re lovely people,” Mr. Peterson said of the couple. “We just felt that their loyalty was to the drive-in and that was nice.”

Mr. Downs and Ms. Laing purchased the theatre in October, 2019, but the deal didn’t close until April, 2020. When they picked up the key, they worried they had made a terrible mistake.

“I had tears coming down my face as we drove up, partially out of happiness, partially out of complete fear. I mean, who starts a business during a pandemic?” Ms. Laing said.

But when summer arrived with physical distancing requirements and a ban on crowded events, the drive-in suddenly became the hottest ticket in town.

“There were just so many things getting tossed our way,” Mr. Downs said. “We were getting weddings and school ceremonies and stand-up comedy.”

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It was a relief, but even before the offers came flooding, Mr. Downs and Ms. Laing were confident the drive-in would be the bright centre of a new life.

The two were introduced by a mutual friend in 2006. Mr. Downs had recently co-founded GelaSkins Inc., a company that makes iPhone cases and skins for other devices. Ms. Laing, who grew up in Cole Harbour, N.S., was working as a research ornithologist. They hit it off romantically, and eventually Ms. Laing would complete an executive MBA and come to work at GelaSkins alongside Mr. Downs.

“We got to realize that we did work well together as a couple and in business,” Ms. Laing said.

But by the spring of 2019, the couple was burned out from the always-on pace of living and working in Toronto.

“I was always on my phone. Drew was always on his laptop. We were always working,” Ms. Laing said.

Of course, owning and operating a drive-in has not meant a life of leisure for the couple. Last year, they updated the concessions stand and installed touch-free faucets in the restrooms as a response to the pandemic. They joined an online network of other drive-in operators to learn everything from painting the movie screens to projector technology.

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They’ve also had to learn to get the movies they want to show. They work with a booking agent who acts as a liaison between them and movie studios.

Their programming is heavy on retro favourites such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T., Back to the Future and Gremlins.

Still, running the drive-in has been a welcome change of pace. The couple now live in a tiny apartment above the snack bar, a much smaller space than the three-bedroom condo they had in Toronto, and they have more time than they ever did before to walk their dog and go on bike rides.

Determined to make the drive-in a community hub, Ms. Laing and Mr. Downs have plenty of daytime programming planned for this summer, including a trunk show they plan to host on Sundays starting in July.

“It’s going to be a socially distanced, super safe garage sale, flea market,” Ms. Laing said.

The Golden Hour Festival, a music festival that last year saw indie legends Stars and the Sadies play at the drive-in, will also be returning this year.

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For now, Mr. Downs’s and Ms. Laing’s plans of touring North America in a camper van during the off-season are on hold because of the pandemic.

But their life running the drive-in is as inspiring as it was the night they watched their first movie there, Ms. Laing said.

“We knew that we could make it in to something magical,” she said.

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