A&W Restaurants, which made root beer a household beverage and invented the bacon cheeseburger, turns 100 on June 20. California entrepreneur Roy Allen served the first frosty mug of A&W at a stand during a parade honoring World War I veterans in the small Northern California town of Lodi. His secret recipe of herbs, bark, spices and berries was an instant hit. A 10-ounce frosted mug sold for a nickel.
A few years later, Allen and partner Frank Wright – hence the name A&W – began opening A&Ws throughout California. Franchising of roadside restaurants started in 1925, and A&W signs quickly popped up around the country. J. Willard Marriott opened A&Ws in Washington, D.C., launching what would become the Marriott hospitality empire.
A&W grew rapidly in the years following World War II, with many returning soldiers using GI Bill loans to open franchises. The chain is credited with creating the drive-in restaurant phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s. Its Modesto, California, restaurant was the inspiration for the classic film American Graffiti.
In 1963, Dale Mulder, a young A&W franchisee, invented the Bacon Cheeseburger. Mulder later became president of A&W and remains chairman. Also in 1963, A&W entered Malaysia, making it the first American restaurant chain to expand to Southeast Asia. That year, it also became the first American hamburger chain to open in Okinawa, Japan. Three years later A&W began serving guests in Singapore.
“There’s a lot of history in 100 years, but our longtime connection to veterans is a common thread,” said CEO Kevin Bazner. “That’s why we are especially pleased to again be supporting Disabled American Veterans – DAV – as part of our celebration.” To commemorate its centennial, A&W created a book of memories and photos fans and former employees submitted. Sales benefit DAV. Buy it online in the A&W Merchandise Store. This week A&W also kicks off its annual summer fundraising campaign for DAV, which culminates on National Root Beer Float Day, August 6.
Bazner noted that A&W has survived recessions, wars, the Great Depression, sugar shortages, competition and 11 ownership changes. “Today, A&W is the strongest it has been in decades, in part because we have returned to our roots, literally – serving freshly made Root Beer in frosted mugs along with all-American food favorites.”
Today, there are about 1,000 restaurants around the world, with almost 600 in the U.S. A&W is owned by its franchisees, who acquired it from YUM! Brands in 2011. Forty-five new A&Ws are scheduled to open this year.