Dozens of customers, some with bright orange balloons tied to their wrists, waited happily in line under a warm Friday evening sun for their chance to spin a wheel and take home a memory from a very special birthday celebration.
After that, they all got a birthday cupcake in white, brown or orange, as A&W Root Beer, with owner Pete Knight at the helm, threw a birthday bash worthy of the 100-year-old root beer and burger chain, making it the oldest one in the nation.
“We love this place, it’s our favorite place!” customer Brian Nesmith said after the family spun the wheel, taking home their favorite memorabilia. Daughter Corinne, 14, won a small root beer glass with the anniversary logo, mom Cassi got orange sunglasses, and Brian a cozy, which fit perfectly on the small root beer glass.
Inside, the restaurant was bustling with activity, with every seat filled with hungry customers enjoying an assortment of burgers, fries, and the classic root beer float. Outside, a band played cheerful and catchy tunes. The parking lot was filled with mostly classic cars, many regular visitors to the weekly cruise nights. Still hidden under blankets, the classic A&W Fiberglas statues of the popular Papa Burger, Mama Burger, Teen Burger and Baby Burger, waited for their reveal later in the evening.
“You know, when I first started with A&W, I didn’t think I would be here for the 100th, I had no idea!”, owner Pete Knight said.
“It’s quite an honor, I have been with A&W longer than the guy who started it! He started it — I am just kind of keeping the flame burning!” he said with a laugh.
Knight was very pleased with the turn-out for the celebration.
“Look at the line! The line is bigger inside! We’ve had a lot of people say this week they were going be here. I just wish we had more space!” Knight said.
“We just appreciate all of our customers, we have such a loyal group of customers, passionate customers, you don’t see this with all businesses, we’re very fortunate. And just hearing everybody tell their stories: ‘I met my husband, I met my wife, it was our first date’ ... It’s just fun to hear those stories, I don’t get tired of hearing those stories!”
Margie Mohr, who used to live in Lodi but now calls Phoenix, Arizona, her home, was having a meal inside the restaurant.
“I remember coming as a teenager, it’s exciting to come back!” she said. “And they are giving away really cute gifts!” she said, showing the black inscribed license plate frame she won spinning the wheel.
Up near the register, Elida Harris chatted with Pete Knight, telling him about her favorite memories growing up as a teenager, coming to A&W. “We used to drive up in the drive through, place our order, then smooch a little with our date, and then have a root beer!” she laughed.
At a long table outside, Victoria Carranco wrote a birthday message to her favorite burger place. “I had to be here!” she said. “This is part of what we do. We’ve been coming here since I was a child.”
She wasn’t just coming to celebrate A&W’s birthday, it was also her own 60th birthday.
“My son asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday, and I said A&W!” she said with a laugh.
The company first began in Lodi during a parade on June 20, 1919 in honor of veterans who fought in World War I — or what was then referred to as the Great War.
Entrepreneur Roy Allen, who had obtained the recipe from an Arizona pharmacist, got wind of the parade and set up a stand on Pine Street selling 10-ounce mugs of ice-cold root beer to thirsty paradegoers for a nickel.
By 1922, he was in business with Frank Wright — Allen and Wright are the sources of the A&W name — and the pair soon opened up their first restaurant.
It was not long before Allen and Wright began opening multiple locations throughout California and began franchising roadside restaurants in 1925.
The orange and brown A&W was brandished throughout the state, turning the iconic logo and cruise nights into a source of inspiration for Modesto native George Lucas in his film “American Graffiti.”
The root beer establishment eventually became a successful restaurant chain with locations across America. The burger and root beer stand also became famous for its roller-skating carhops.
In 1963 A&W broke new ground and became the first American burger chain to make it to Southeast Asia, when it opened its store in Malaysia.
1963 was also the year a young A&W franchisee and trailblazer Dale Mulder invented the bacon cheeseburger. Mulder’s invention helped catapult the prominence of A&W’s burger brand.
In 2011, A&W was purchased by its franchisees, who run its more than 600 locations in the U.S. and nearly 1,000 locations worldwide.
The chain has gone through 11 ownership changes throughout 100 years, eventually bringing the headquarters to Lexington, Kentucky. There are 45 new locations scheduled to be open this year according to the company’s website.
News-Sentinel reporter Oula Miqbel contributed to this report.