The story of A&W begins in 1918 in Flagstaff, Ariz., where a wandering businessman named Roy Allen operated a hotel. Allen befriended a retired chemist who boasted of creating a formula of herbs, spices, barks and berries that made a tasty root beer. Allen got the recipe, but it's not known whether he paid for it or not.
Some time later, Allen packed his belongings, his wife Alice, daughter Louise and the root beer recipe onto a train and moved to Lodi. It is not known why he selected Lodi as the place to debut the new beverage.
In a savvy business move, Allen decided to introduce his root beer during the homecoming parade arranged for Lodi's returning World War I veterans on June 4, 1919. He set up a temporary stand right along the parade route on Pine Street between the Lodi Arch and Church Street. The 1919 city directory lists Allen as operating a shop at 13 W. Pine St. and residing at 17 1/2 W. Pine St., and it is likely he set up his stand outside his shop.
About 20,000 people reportedly attended the parade, afternoon festivities, evening barbecue at Hale Park and nighttime dancing on Pine Street. During that sunny day 89 years ago, Allen gave away free drinks of his refreshing root beer.
People must have raved about the new beverage. Within days, Allen set up his stand and began selling his ice-cold root beer in mugs for a nickel apiece. June 20, 1919 is the official birthdate recognized by A&W.
Allen's timing couldn't have been better. Prohibition, which outlawed the production and consumption of all alcoholic beverages nationwide, went into effect that year. Allen's cold, frothy root beer was a welcome substitute. Allen even reportedly fashioned his root beer stand like a bar with the servers standing behind a big wooden counter outfitted with a low rail for customers to rest a foot while enjoying their brew.
Allen soon opened another root beer stand in Stockton, and by 1920 he expanded into Sacramento. In 1922, Allen took on a partner named Frank Wright who was one of his employees. Combining the initials of their last names, the partners began calling their product, A&W root beer.
Together, Allen and Wright expanded the business. They started three stands in Houston, Texas in 1922. In 1923, they began their first drive-in operations. They opened a stand, reportedly at 16th and K streets in Sacramento, and hired a crew of "tray-boys" and "tray-girls" who dashed out to the thirsty customers while they waited in their cars parked at the curb.
Once again, Allen's timing and business sense was perfect. In the early 1920s, automobiles were popular but still somewhat of a novelty for people. The drive-in gave people a place to go and something to do in their cars.
In 1924, Allen bought out Wright's interest in the company, but he decided to continue using the registered name of A&W.
Sometime during the first five years in business, Allen closed down the stand in Lodi but rapidly expanded elsewhere. In 1924, he began developing a chain of drive-ins in Central and Northern California. He reportedly sold franchise rights for the western states. He moved to Salt Lake City and began expanding into the Midwest and East.
Sometime during the 1930s when the effects of the Great Depression slowed root beer sales, Allen started selling food at the A&W stands.
In 1950, with more than 450 A&W franchises scattered about the country, Allen sold the company and retired to Southern California. The new owner was a Nebraska man named Gene Hurtz.
The company continued to grow rapidly. In 1954, Lodi's A&W Restaurant opened at 216 E. Lodi Ave.
In 1963, Hurtz sold the company to a big Massachusetts-based firm called J. Hungerford Smith, which had been manufacturing A&W root beer concentrate since 1921.
Since 1963, A&W has been owned by some big companies that were gobbled up by other companies. In 1978, two franchise subsidiaries were formed, A&W Root Beer Beverages to market the soft drink and A&W Restaurants, Inc.
A&W Restaurants is now owned by Yum! Brands, Inc. Based in Kentucky, Yum! Brands also owns Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken and calls itself the world's largest restaurant company with more than 35,000 restaurants in 110 countries, according to the corporate Web site. There are about 1,200 A&W Root Beer restaurants in the world today, according to Peter Knight, Lodi restaurant owner.
Roy Allen, the lucky businessman who mixed and poured the first mugs of root beer in Lodi 89 years ago, enjoyed 18 years of retirement on Balboa Island before he died in 1968.
Vintage Lodi appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel on the first and third Saturdays of the month. This Vintage column on A&W first appeared in June 1999.