2015-09-18 / Community

A Window on the Past

A & W Root Beer part of nationwide trend
By Kathryn DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society

One very fond memory for many South Portlanders is the old A & W Drive-In Restaurant that used to be on Main Street. The franchised restaurant, known for its root beer and in-car tray service, opened at 798 Main St. in 1957 and was a very popular hang-out back in the day. The first building was replaced by a new restaurant building on the same site in 1970, and the restaurant eventually closed in 1985. Southside Plaza was later built on that site.

The origins of the restaurant franchise trace back to the origins of the signature root beer. Roy Allen first sold his delicious root beer creation during a 1919 parade in California that welcomed back returning soldiers from World War I. Allen took on a partner, Frank Wright, to fund a new business and in 1922, they officially named the product “A & W Root Beer” from their last initials. Their business opened two restaurants in California that were noted for their drive up tray service. Wanting to grow the business with a franchising concept, Allen bought out his partner in 1924 and within a few years, he was on his way to growing a nationwide chain of franchised restaurants. One of the requirements of the franchisees was that they had to buy and sell the exclusive A & W Root Beer concentrate from Allen.

The root beer itself was sold only on tap at A & W restaurants for much of its history. The franchise underwent many ownership changes over the years, but it wasn’t until 1971 that A & W Root Beer was finally canned and bottled for sale, at first in California and Arizona; however, it didn’t take long for sales to spread across all states in America.

Kathryn DiPhilippo is director of South Portland Historical Society.

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