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12 Frosty Facts About A&W Restaurants

A&W has been serving up root beer and burgers for nearly 100 years—grab a frosty mug and see how this California chain kicked off a new era of American eateries.

1. A&W IS NAMED AFTER ITS FOUNDERS, ALLEN AND WRIGHT.

Roy Allen (the "A") jump-started the A&W chain in 1919, taking advantage of crowds attending a veterans’ parade in Lodi, Calif. The traveling entrepreneur, originally from Illinois, looked to capitalize on a root beer recipe he bought from an Arizona pharmacist years before. On a warm June day, Allen hawked mugs of his nameless root beer at five cents per cup, and realized the drink was a hit. Allen partnered with Frank Wright (the "W"), and the pair quickly opened root beer drink-stops in nearby California cities before venturing east. The business duo were partners for only five years before Wright was bought out and left A&W, but even after his departure, the name stuck. Allen went on to create the A&W franchise, adding food options to the root beer hotspots.

2. A&W SUPPOSEDLY OFFERED DRIVE-INS BEFORE ANYONE ELSE.

Roy Allen allegedly created the first drive-ins for his A&W restaurants in 1921, just two years after his first root beer stand. The second A&W restaurant in Sacramento offered so called "tray-boys" who delivered burgers and root beer to visitors who ate from the comfort of their cars. Whether A&W truly coined in-car food is contested through fast-food history. Another California restaurant, the Pig Stand Number 21, is said to have had the first drive-thru window, created 10 years later, and another Cali chain, In-N-Out Burger, was the first to add a two-way speaker to their drive-thru in 1948. A&W also claims to be the world’s first franchise and the inventor of the bacon cheeseburger.

3. THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND WORLD WAR II WEREN'T THAT HARD ON A&W.

A&W didn’t slow down after Wright’s departure, and economic downturn didn’t stop it either. Despite the Great Depression, the chain continued to add root beer stands in quick succession. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, Allen had opened 260 A&W locations. Rationing of sugar and meat during the war did temporarily stifle expansion, but by 1950, the chain expanded to 500 restaurants and into Canada. With more traveling families on the road after World War II, Allen’s success boomed to nearly 2000 A&W franchise locations by the 1960s.

4. A&WS IN CANADA ARE TECHNICALLY DIFFERENT RESTAURANTS.

If you dine above the northern border, you’ll find that A&Ws in Canada are pretty similar, just with a few alterations. While the chain opened its first Canadian restaurant in 1956, the link between the American and Canadian locations lasted less than 20 years. By 1972, the chain of Canadian restaurants was sold to Unilever (yes, the same company that makes soap, laundry detergent and tea, among other things). Both A&W chains offer root beer and hot foods, and have similar logos, though in Canada, A&Ws don’t serve up the tagline “All American Foods,” because that just wouldn’t make sense. Instead, the northern chain is focused on hormone and steroid-free meat products, which caused a huge beef with Canadian beef producers.

5. A CANADIAN A&W ONCE HAD A FLOAT-THRU.

While the U.S. and Canadian chain generally offer the same foods, A&Ws up north sometimes take marketing to a new level. Take for instance the world’s first Float-Thru, where swimmers and floaters on the Okanagan River unexpectedly got free burgers as part of an A&W commercial.

6. FREE ROOT BEER IS THE BEST ROOT BEER.

If there’s any day to find your closest A&W, it’s probably August 6. The chain celebrates National Root Beer Float Day with free mini floats. A&W restaurants also use the holiday to collect donations for selected charities. Unfortunately, there’s no big deal for National Burger Day.

7. EACH FAMILY MEMBER ONCE HAD THEIR OWN BURGER.

Ever wondered why A&W has the Papa Burger? It’s because there used to be a line of burgers named for every member of the family: Mama, Teen and Baby, too. Each came with its own toppings and sauces named for the burger (like Papa Sauce and Teen Sauce, which sound just a little strange), and varied in size, with Papa as the largest and Baby offered to kids. The Burger Family became a marketing tactic throughout the 1960s, and A&W invested in roadside statutes of all four family members, complete with burgers and frosted mugs of root beer. Like the statues, most of the Burger Family is gone for American A&W fans. But, Canadian A&Ws still offer the entire Burger Family, along with some new members, like the Grandpa and Uncle burgers.

8. ONE BURGER HAD A HORRIBLE NAME.

Check out this awesome menu we found from our Clarkston, Washington A&W- circa 1960! "Like" if you remember any of these menu items- Awful Awful Burger, anyone? ;)

Posted by A&W Restaurants on Monday, February 4, 2013

A&W used to offer the Awful Awful burger. The jumbo burger really wasn’t anything unusual—stacked with two burger patties, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo and pickles. But, considering most A&W burgers only had one patty, this was an awful lot of sandwich. In 1960, you could get the Awful Awful burger for $1.10 (which with inflation would now be about $8.85).

9. YOU COULDN'T GET ROOT BEER IN A BOTTLE UNTIL 1971.

That’s because A&W only offered their standout beverage in frosted mugs within its restaurants. By the late '60s, widespread demand pushed A&W headquarters to look at distribution, and in 1971, the first cans and bottles of A&W Root Beer rolled into stores. Other sodas, like A&W Cream Soda, sugar-free and diet root beers didn’t hit shelves until the late 1980s.

10. ROOT BEER HAS A SHELF-LIFE, AND IT'S PROBABLY NOT AS LONG AS YOU THINK.

If you’ve ever thought of stocking up on A&W soda, take note. Root beer’s freshness all depends on the container and sugar content. Glass bottles and cans of A&W root beer will get you the furthest with a “best by” date of 39 weeks after they leave the factory. The brand’s diet sodas and soft drinks that come in plastic bottles have a shelf-life of only 13 weeks.

11. THE MARRIOTT FAMILY OWNED AN A&W BEFORE LAUNCHING THEIR HOTEL CHAIN.

J. Williard and Alice Marriott, the founders of Marriott Hotels, first ran an A&W root beer stand together in Washington, D.C. The couple opened the root beer spot in 1927, adding in chili, coffee and hot tamales, and called their restaurant Hot Shoppes. Within a year, the Marriotts opened two more restaurants and began exploring other monetizing options. During the late 1930s, Hot Shoppes’ meal became a standard food item for airplane passengers flying through Washington D.C., and in the 1950s, the Hot Shoppes restaurants began providing food to area hospitals, meanwhile buying other fast-food chains. The Hot Shoppes success helped support construction of the first Marriott Hotel in 1957.

12. A&W’S MAMMAL MASCOT IS A PRETTY GOOD PLAY ON WORDS.

A&W’s mascot, Rooty the Great Root Bear, emerged from the restaurant’s marketing department in 1974. But, for the past four decades, he’s been occasionally sent back into hibernation as A&W considers other marketing campaigns. In 2013, A&W revived the pants-less, root beer-loving bear with his own YouTube show about leaving his den and returning to work at A&W. But this decades-old bear isn’t completely old school; Rooty is pretty active online and even has an app. Perhaps that’s what’s made A&W a century-long success—being able to change with the times while offering a little nostalgia.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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