Root Beer Roots: 100 years of A&W
Cary, Van Horn family celebrates 100th anniversary of A&W restaurants after 52 years of franchisee ownership in Visalia
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – It was just two years ago that the Cary and Van Horn families celebrated their 50th anniversary of A&W franchise ownership. On Saturday, the families’ first location in downtown Visalia celebrated A&W Restaurants’ 100th anniversary with its monthly Cruise Night. The event harkens back to a time when driving your car through town was the outing rather than the destination. As American’s love affair with cars was taking off, so was its appetite for drive-ins, with colorful carhops, revved up hotrods and belly-quenching burgers.
The Cary family started its A&W story nearly 50 years after the original A&W opened when Bob and Karen Cary purchased an existing franchise at 301 N. Willis Street in 1967. Bob was working in billing for PG&E when he decided he was tired of climbing the corporate ladder and wanted to be his own boss. While living in the San Luis Obispo area, Bob struck up a conversation with a friend who owned an A&W franchise there. The friend opened up his books and showed Bob he was making a good living and said his brother owned a franchise in Visalia and wanted to sell.
Bob was familiar with Visalia having attended College of the Sequoias, so he and Karen visited town, looked at the location, and bought it on site.
“I didn’t know Visalia,” Karen said in a 2017 interview. “I was supportive of it. We were young enough if it didn’t work out, we could do something else.”
The Carys and their four children quickly moved to Visalia and began learning the restaurant business on the job. They were living in a model home while theirs was being built. They had no experience in the industry and knew they had a lot of work to do, fast.
“Dad didn’t know anything about the restaurant business,” said Craig Van Horn, who was 3 years old when his mother married Bob. “We went to the restaurant a lot just to spend time with him.”
The Carys became a successful A&W franchise that spawned five more in Tulare and Kings counties thanks to their bookkeeping experience, business savvy and dedication to serving the community.
“Being a member of a service club, going to events, sitting on local committees, that’s my social time, those are my friends,” Craig said. “It’s good for business, but it’s even better if you want to do business in a nice community.”
Root Beer Beginnings
Forty-eight years earlier and a little less than 200 miles north of Visalia, an elementary-school drop-out named Roy W. Allen opened a root beer stand on a busy street corner in downtown Lodi, Calif. that would pave the way for fast food chains. After striking a deal with a visiting chemist to develop a root beer that was richer and sweeter than others already on the market, Allen made the new product known to the entire town by giving it away for free during a citywide celebration welcoming home troops from World War I, according to “A Great American Brand,” a 2009 book by A&W Restaurants, Inc. commemorating the company’s 90th anniversary. The next day he began selling his root beer for a nickel a glass. A year after opening, the business catapulted in popularity thanks to having the word “beer” in it when Prohibition began in January 1920. Allen’s first employee, Frank Wright, was tasked with opening a second root beer stand location in Stockton, Calif. Soon after, the two decided to lease the first two locations in order to focus on opening a third in Sacramento under the initials – “A” for Allen and “W” for Wright.
The Sacramento location became California’s first drive-in restaurant when it opened in 1923. He had servers deliver sturdy, glass mugs of root beer on trays to customers waiting in their car. The timing couldn’t have been better as there were already 8 million cars on the road and the number was growing at about 3,000 new cars per day. In 1924, Allen bought out Wright and again became sole owner of the company after retaining rights from Wright and registering the name “A&W Root Beer” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A&W became the nation’s first roadside restaurant chains when it began franchising in 1925. The low barrier to entry and easy business model attracted some of the brightest business minds of the day, including Bill Marriott, who used profits from A&W to support his rise as a hotel magnate.
“In the early days, they had an agreement where you didn’t have to give up a percentage of the profits but you had to buy the root beer concentrate from A&W corporation,” Craig said.
Allen was also a pioneer in fostering new customers adopting a “kids drink free” policy at all of his locations. Business boomed, weathered the Great Depression, and was about to take off when the United States went to war for the first time in the company’s history. Eighty restaurants of the 260 A&W stores closed nationwide during World War II from 1941-1945 as labor and preservatives, such as sugar, were in short supply. But in the following years, men returning home from war looking for business opportunities fueled A&W to double its number of locations by 1950.
It was during the post war boom that an A&W stand popped up on Willis Street in downtown Visalia in the late 1950s. Bob and Karen Cary purchased the downtown Visalia location in 1967. The recently married couple was looking for an opportunity for their family which already included four children. Karen had a 1-year-old son, Craig Van Horn, and was carrying her second child, Connie Van Horn, when her first husband was killed, along with 22 of his Cal Poly teammates, after the football team’s C-46 crashed near Toledo, Ohio in 1960. Bob married Karen a few years later while living in San Luis Obispo, where a buddy had opened an A&W franchise. During this time Bob and Karen had two more children, Julia Cary and Jill Cary.
“Bob was my dad,” said Craig, who was 8 years old when the Carys bought the A&W on Willis Street. “We may have had a different last name, but we were Bob’s kids, there was never any other way to look at it.”
Craig said A&W was a great place to work selling potential employees on the fact that you could make a full-year’s salary in just eight months as Visalia’s A&W would close for the winter. But the Carys decided there was no reason to lose money for one-third of the year and decided to open year round.
“We only closed one month that first year to change the kitchen,” Karen said in a 2017 interview. It was the last time any local A&W would close for more than a day.
Competition in the fast food market began to heat up in the 1950s with companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Carl’s Jr. beginning their own franchises. The second chain to come to Visalia was McDonald’s, which opened on Mooney Boulevard in the 1960s.
“There was some concern that having a second burger chain would hurt business, but it actually helped,” Craig said. “People were going out to eat more, and they were excited to have options, one on each side of town.”
The demand for a more mobile lifestyle in the 1970s – involving family road trips, relocating for jobs and organized youth sports – led the Cary’s to open an A&W location on Mooney in 1972. Craig had recently come back to work for the family business after managing a local auto supply store, when his parents purchased the Tulare A&W in 1988. Craig was put in charge of rebuilding the store as it was coming off a three-year closure.
“I didn’t want to be a store manager forever, and I knew that computers were changing the auto parts business,” Craig said. “I was hoping to move into a higher position in the company.”
Craig’s chance came in the mid-1990s when he was named general manager after the family opened a store in the Hanford Mall followed by purchasing an existing A&W in Exeter. A decade later, the family opened their sixth restaurant in the Shannon Ranch development at the corner of Riggin Avenue and Mooney Boulevard in the northern part of Visalia.
Food wasn’t a major part of A&W’s business model until the 1950s as other drive-ins began to offer burgers, fries, and other sandwiches. Craig said A&W was decidedly hands-off when it came to food offerings, and in some cases it remains that way to this day.
In the 1960s, A&W corporate adopted a merchandising program called the Burger Family. It created a “size for every appetite” with Papa, Mama, and Baby burger. A Teen burger, believed to be the nation’s first bacon cheeseburger, was added a few years later. Craig said the statues of each member of the family holding up a burger were taken from the Willis Street location and added as large lawn ornaments to the Carys backyard. Canadian franchises added to the family with Grandpa, Uncle, and Buddy burgers. The Burger Family program was discontinued in U.S. locations in the 1970s but the Papa Burger name returned to the menu and remains there today.
Locally, A&W has served sub sandwiches, French roll sandwiches, tacos, and at one time had a Giant Burger in honor of College of the Sequoias, where Bob Cary went to school. The burger had a half pound patty and was served on a French roll bun, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the community college in Visalia.
“We’ve always been a big contributor to COS,” Craig said. “Dad played sports there before going to Fresno State and was inducted into their Hall of Fame.”
Some regional items made it onto A&W’s core menu, such as in 2004 when franchises added cheese curds. Others remain on the menu at a single locations, which is the case at Willis Street in Visalia.
“There is a small bean and cheese burrito that came with the restaurant when my family bought it,” Craig said. “It’s a good little snack but I don’t think you will find many A&W menus with a burrito.”
A&W has always maintained a nostalgia to its brand. The Carys capitalized on this in the 1980s with Cruise Nights. Craig said the idea for Cruise Nights came from former KJUG radioman Charlie Hoskins, who convinced Bob Cary to have a car show at the downtown location. In 1988, the downtown A&W held its first Cruise Night for classic cars, mostly hot rods, to coincide with the first year of the Visalia Breakfast Lions Club Car Show. To this day, classic cars gather in the parking lot harkening back to a scene from the 1950s on the third Saturday of each month ever since. Visalia’s is one of thousands of A&W hosted cruise nights taking place in Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, Rhode Island, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Florida.
“It’s unique because it is really like an old fashioned drive-in atmosphere,” Craig said. “People don’t necessarily eat in the cars, but we do bring the food out to them as they share stories about their cars.”
Long before meals made the menu, early A&W ordering was simple, a root beer for a nickel and an ice cream cone for a few cents more. Those two items became the key ingredients for one of A&W’s most iconic treats – the root beer float. Craig took the root beer float to new horizons by driving them to the customers instead of having them drive to the nearest A&W location. For several years, Craig had worked on creating a mobile business by setting up A&W root beer dispensers at private parties and fundraisers throughout Tulare and Kings counties. The only problem was that the dispensers had to be assembled and filled on site and any root beer that didn’t sell had to be thrown out because it wasn’t kept cold. In order to solve the problem, Craig came up with the idea to convert an old van or truck into a float mobile.
Craig’s wife Jennifer found an old 1947 DIVCO (Detroit Industrial vehicle) that had been used as a milk truck. Craig drove out to Haasville, Ken. to pick up the non-operational vehicle and hauled it back.
“It was so ugly, that it was cute,” Craig said. “It was completely rusted out and needed a lot of work.”
It took a mechanic more than a year to fix it up, cut out a side panel window and canopy, plumb it for three beverage spigots, and install an ice cream cabinet. The float mobile made its debut in 2008 and continues to be a part of fundraisers, such as the 52nd annual East-West All-Star Football Game for Tulare and Kings counties this Saturday, June 22. Craig said the public relations vehicle normally donates a large portion of its proceeds to events and goes out 4-5 times per week in the spring. The vehicle was featured in the to the 2009 book “A Great American Brand: In Celebration of 90 years of A&W” and is sure to make an appearance somewhere on Aug. 6, 2019, which is National Root Beer Float Day.
“We don’t really make any money off of it, but as a marketing tool it pays for itself,” Craig said. “No other A&W has a floatmobile.”
Bob Cary died nine years ago and his wife Karen is still involved with the bookkeeping of the business at age 79, but has handed off most of the business to Craig after retiring to Pleasanton, Calif. a few years ago. In addition to Craig, Jill is the only other Cary child to continue working with the VanCary Inc. A&W franchises. Jill works as a part-time office assistant to general manager Trish Krstic. Craig said he is hoping his son, 27-year-old Nick Van Horn, will take over the business from him someday. He is currently doing repair and maintenance for their six locations.
“Dad’s whole focus was to be community minded,” Craig said. “That’s something he taught us, and we strive for that in everything we do.”