Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Tale of Frank and Roy

Back around 1919 a man named Roy Allen opened a roadside Root Beer stand in Lodi, California for a veterans parade, a common enough thing in those days when folks walked, took a trolley or drove a slow car and went to parades to honour their neighbours service. Apparently, Roy found himself with an instant hit on his hands!

He had purchased his recipe from a pharmacist in Arizona, according to A&W historians and that was the start of an American Root Beer revolution. The following year he opened a second stand in Sacramento and along the way he hired Frank Wright, a man who would very soon become his business partner in an American Dream. At the time Roy opened his Lodi location he charged only 5 cents for mug of his creamy, frosty sensation. Quite a deal considering the size was a solid 10 ounces. Drug store competitors charged a nickel for less soda in most locations around the country.

In 1922 Roy and Frank became partners and the Root Beer changed it’s name from Roy Allen’s Root Beer to the now well known A&W, for Allen and Wright. And there it has remained till this very day. A&W pioneered the drive-in with car hops in 1923, setting the stage for our modern fast food, drive-thru society

A lot has changed in the intervening years since Roy and Frank began their business. When I was a boy I remember going to the A&W in Meridian, Mississippi with my mom and aunts. It was a real drive in, virtually identical to the one pictured here.

On hot Southern days we would sit in the car or at one of the outside tables and enjoy a nice cold mug of A&W Root Beer that had been made on the premises. I can clearly remember walking through the screen door into the place and smelling the fries, burgers and hot dogs of that now long gone place. Surrounded by tall trees that provided shade to all the folks who drove in to sample the fare, the A&W was just across the way from the Matty Hersee Hospital on 8th Street. Around the corner was the Borden’s Ice Cream store, a favourite for any young kid. But, the A&W held, and still holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I got to hang out with my extended family in the form of my Aunt Shirley, more often than not. We’d drive over in her Chevrolet, red with a red interior and indulge in Root Beer, fries, burgers and some of the best chili dogs in Meridian, enjoying sitting under the canopy of the old growth oaks, pecans, sweet gum and other shade giving trees.

Like my now deceased and greatly missed Aunt Shirley the A&W has long since been replaced by something else. A Taco Bell now sits in the spot where generations of kids and families drove up to eat, drink and be merry. Some might call that progress, but I’m not one of those people. I find it strangely comforting, (in a vengeful sort of way) that the section of that town that was once so happy, clean and successful is now run down and anything but successful. There’s something satisfying when you see a venerable institution destroyed to make way for the new and progressive and then see that there are indeed karmic consequences. Physics applies across the universe. For every action there is an opposite and (usually) equal reaction. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Root Beer.

Now, on to the rating of A&W's latest offering. A "vintage" plastic bottle. Vintage to me would have been to offer it in a glass bottle but in this case plastic says it all. This is no freshly brewed Root Beer, such as we used to be offered at the A&W Drive-In's. No sir, this is mass produced Root Beer and gives you exactly what you expect from one. I'd let the kids drink it on a hot picnic kinda day but you'll never see this as a staple in my home.

Carbonation: Soda-like, almost too bubbly for a Root Beer.
Mouth Feel: Just shy of creamy. Almost creamy.
Root Beer Flavour: Modern Root Beer Flavour. It relies on sweetness to do the trick and not the complex Root Beer flavour.
Sweetness: Very sweet bordering on almost too sweet.
Head: No lasting head, no creaminess.
Aftertaste: Vanilla-like aftertaste. Becomes cloying after awhile. A short while.
Aroma: A decent Root Beer smell, easily identifiable as "Root Beer" in the modern world. Not displeasing, but lacking any character or complexity.

Rating (1-10)
A&W Root Beer: 5


Mike Kole said...

Michael- Interestingly, there is an A&W restaurant inside the Tower City complex in Cleveland that my son & I used to frequent.

In those days, I was living in a rough neighborhood called St. Hyacinthe, off of E.55th Street, just south of the RTA Rapid Transit station. Alex & I would walk to the Rapid, and ride to Cleveland's Terminal Tower. The ride by itself was a highlight for Alex when he was 8 and 9 years old.

We always went to A&W for lunch. The restaurant had a window view of the Cuyahoga River and the oxbow known as "Collision Bend"- for obvious reasons. Every once in a while, we would see once of the enormous iron ore or stone tankers gently navigating the bend en route to LTV Steel or Ontario Stone. We always got root beer with our lunches. Why you would get a Pepsi at an A&W is beyond me.

A&W offers their best root beers in the restaurants, in my opinion. Most other restaurants just hook the darned hoses up to the fountains and let it rip. The mix is never right. It is especially revealing if you get a diet drink. Try it some time: Go to McDonald's with a can of Diet Coke and then order one from the restaurant. Do the taste test, and darned if the canned product isn't 100% better than the fountain. A&W, at least at Tower City, always paid attention to the mix, and the root beer was always excellent. I guess having the product's name on the door makes a huge difference.

A&W has sentimental value to Alex, because his grandmother was a car-hop at the Bedford, Ohio A&W. She met his grandfather there, serving him burgers and root beer in the mid 1960s. Without A&W serving as matchmaker, well, you do the math.

Unfortunately, it's a used car lot now, although it is obvious that it once was a drive-in restaurant.

The only other stand-alone A&W I've seen within the last 10 years was in Youngstown, where there were a handful of them. All I see now are the hybrids, with KFC. Forgive me, but that match is kind of the reverse Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.


Michael said...

And that's what I associate with Root Beer that I seldom associate with other drinks, Mike. Memories. Root Beer does all the time, so does a handful of other sodas but those special memories often revolve around a Root Beer!
Of course Nehi's, Mt Dews and a host of others have some stories there, too.