Welcome Home, Soldiers
On June 20, 1919, there was a citywide party in Lodi, California, to welcome home World War I heroes, and Roy W. Allen felt that hot night would be the right time to open a root beer stand. A little less than a century later, that very same brand of root beer is still satisfying thirsts, but not just in Lodi.
Two years after his initial success, Allen partnered with former Lodi employee Frank Wright to expand into the larger city of Sacramento, and the duo took the initials from their last names to name their root beer stand “A&W.” The name stuck. This Sacramento drive-in was the first-ever franchised fast food restaurant, and Allen continued to sell franchises to others as he built the A&W chain.
Franchising is just one of many A&W fast food firsts. The chain expanded into Canada in the early fifties, paving the way for international sales. In 1963 it introduced the first-ever bacon cheeseburger, paving the way for many a satisfied stomach.
In the 1970s there were more A&Ws than McDonald’s, and the company started a beverage division enabling anyone to take home that frosty mug taste. And in 1974, Rooty the Great Root Bear was born with a frosty mug in hand. But the ’70s proved to be tough going, and franchises couldn’t keep up with the growth. A&W scaled back its restaurant business and operates approximately 1,200 locations today.
Fizz and Frost
The magic of A&W is, and always has been, its root beer, which is not surprisingly its best-selling item. A&W Root Beer has been prepared on-site at each location since day one, and there’s nothing better than filling a frosty mug that was kept in the freezer just for you. Whether it’s in a float or alone in your glass, you can always taste the freshness. I rank both beverages at the top of their respective classes.
Never underestimate the appeal of those frosty mugs. At an Ohio location in 1956, a happy couple met as they were swiping mugs from the restaurant. I kept one on hand in my freezer for years so I could re-create the effect with A&W from a can.
America’s Roast Beef, Yes Sir!
Finding a fast food burger in the mid-1960s was never a problem, but grabbing a quick sandwich on the run was a different story. Leroy and Forrest Raffel saw an opportunity, and the brothers opened a sandwich shop in Boardman, Ohio, in 1964 to serve hot, fresh roast beef to rival those quick burgers. They chose the name Arby’s based on R.B., the initials of “Raffel Brothers” (and for their product of “Roast Beef”).
The sandwich shop quickly became a hit, and the Raffels franchised Arby’s restaurants across the country to those who shared their passion for hot, fresh roast beef. Arby’s initially offered roast beef sandwiches, potato cakes, and soft drinks to customers. And you couldn’t miss an Arby’s driving down the street with its ten-gallon hat beckoning you to come in.
As Arby’s grew and expanded its menu, it innovated products in various categories. The Beef ’N Cheddar became a staple with its classic Roast Beef sandwich. Curly fries had their own unique shape and proprietary seasoned batter on top, and don’t forget the Horsey Sauce (a horseradish/mayo blend) for dipping. When it came to shakes, Baskin-Robbins was brought in to create a new flavor, the legendary Jamocha shake.
Customers appreciated these innovations and dedication to the quality of the food. Arby’s became the first nationally franchised coast-to-coast sandwich chain and was ahead of its time. Arby’s has been bought and sold a few times over the past few decades and its sandwich-making competition has grown tremendously. But if you’re in the mood for a roast beef sandwich, just look for the cowboy hat and the curly fries.
They Have the Meats
It always feels comfortable walking into an Arby’s, like it’s a step up from rival fast food places. That’s intentional, and the decor is designed to give customers a down-home feeling.
All fast food restaurants have a signature item, and for Arby’s, it’s the roast beef. The beef is sliced fresh in the store every single day, and you can taste that difference. The ultimate compliment is how most customers think of Arby’s as just roast beef, but there’s much more under its big hat.
Arby’s side items are unique and well worth a taste. When I order my Meat Mountain or Big Montana, I can’t wait for those curly fries (with Horsey Sauce, of course).
I lost a lot of money betting that Arby’s originally stood for “America’s Roast Beef, Yes Sir,” but the phrase was just a catchy advertising slogan. Now you can bet your friends and take their money as well.
Arthur Treacher is a late English actor best known as the perfect butler from Shirley Temple films and as the legendary Constable in the Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins. So when National Food Corporation, led by Dave Thomas (yes, that Dave Thomas from Wendy’s) and other fast food mavens, was looking for a spokesperson to bring fish and chips stateside, Mr. Treacher was the perfect Brit to underscore the character of the food. So perfect that they named an entire franchise after the actor. Now, that’s a jolly holiday.
Fish and chips restaurants were opening all across America in the 1970s, and Arthur Treacher’s became a fast food staple for many families. The flaky cod and thick fries provided an alternative to the plethora of burger and chicken joints that could be found on any corner. Eight hundred locations popped up in the United States, and although the menu was limited, the fish, chips, tartar sauce, and hush puppies were more than enough for everyone.
But there were rough seas ahead. The price of fish shot up, and suddenly these moneymaking fish and chips shops began to go under. On the strength of its brand name, Arthur Treacher’s stayed afloat during some tough times and now is part of the Nathan’s Famous family.
Arthur Treacher’s was a personal favorite of mine growing up. I enjoyed Swanson fish and chips frozen dinners at home, so going to Arthur Treacher’s felt like fine dining.
The crunchiness of the breading combined with the tenderness of the fish made for a scrumptious meal. The original fries were potato wedges, another detail that set this spread apart. Serving trays were outlined with faux British newsprint to create an authentic fish and chips feeling. I never felt like I was in England, but it did feel like a royal kind of meal.
We Sell Fun, Not Ice Cream
Baskin. Robbins. Two names that instantly bring a smile to your face. In 1945 brothers-in-law Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins wisely decided to merge their Glendale, California, ice cream parlors and gave birth to what was to become the world’s largest chain of ice cream specialty stores. A variety of flavors has always made Baskin-Robbins unique. Sure, there’s the standard vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry—but also Rocky Road, Pralines ’n Cream, and the best chocolate chip ice cream you’ll ever devour.
When I was growing up it was always an adventure journeying to Baskin-Robbins, because a new flavor would be waiting when you arrived. 31derful flavors (there are now over 1,000) meant a new taste every month, and as co-founder Irv Robbins insisted, the store was about fun first, ice cream second. The Birthday Club (of which I am a proud, long-standing member) rewards you with a free ice cream cone on your birthday.
Clever innovations have always kept Baskin-Robbins at the top of its industry. The miniature pink taste spoon, hand-packed quarts, the monthly flavor countdown, mixing and matching new flavors . . . it’s a never-ending pursuit of providing the best ice cream experience.
On with the Countdown
I vividly remember the first time I entered a Baskin-Robbins in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. I wondered what the heck that “31” meant, and once I found out, I was hooked. I immediately signed up for the Birthday Club to guarantee a free cone every November 24. And an ice cream shop that had a new list each month ranking it’s flavors? I’m so there.
You see, it wasn’t just the great chocolate chip ice cream that kept me coming back. It was its position on the monthly flavor chart. I could never understand how Gold Medal Ribbon or some other trendy flavor could grab the top spot, when steady favorites like mine and Rocky Road couldn’t crack the Top Ten.
Another proud moment in my life was when I got my very own name tag working at a Baskin-Robbins location in Commack, New York. Having this job in high school enabled me to drive at night with my junior license. But the real appeal, of course, was all the chocolate chip ice cream I could stick that little pink flavor spoon into. I had my fair share, but I also got to learn how the ice cream was made and stored, and witnessed all of the smiles it brought to customers (except for my friends who wanted in on the free scoops).
Ben & Jerry’s
Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield completed an ice-cream-making correspondence course from Penn State’s Creamery (which is a must visit), relying on “mouth feel” to create unique flavors. The next year, the partners opened an ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, and embarked on their quest to change ice cream, and the world, forever. They succeeded.
Ben & Jerry’s has always been about having a good time. From its annual free cone day (the second Tuesday in April) to building the world’s largest sundae, or creating flavors like Wavy Gravy and Cherry Garcia, there has always been a creative spirit behind the chunky product. But that wouldn’t mean a thing if the ice cream didn’t taste fantastic—and it does. You will always find quality chunks in any scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which makes you feel like you’re getting more out of it. Couple the uniqueness of the ice cream with Woody Jackson’s artwork, and Ben & Jerry’s is a brand that cannot be missed.
Ben & Jerry’s took on ice cream giant Häagen-Dazs in the early 1980s when it started packing pints, and the two guys from Vermont prevailed. Earthiness oozes out of Ben & Jerry’s, and the company puts its money where its mouth is helping noble causes all over the globe.
Honeymoon in Vermont
When I first started working in Manhattan in my early twenties, my schedule led to a necessary dietary staple for dinner—a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie. (Free tip—put your pint in the microwave for 16 seconds; you’ll thank my wife, Debbie, for that gem.) A few years later, I got married and decided to make a pilgrimage with my new bride . . . to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory up in Vermont. Almost twenty-five years later, we remember it as one of our favorite trips. Our journey was twofold: to find the original shop in Burlington and hit the factory tour in Waterbury (a required rite of ice cream passage).
As we drove through the picturesque Vermont landscape, I worried that our expectations might be set too high. We had our golden ticket—would there be Oompa-Loompas? Sadly there weren’t, but we did learn firsthand how Ben & Jerry’s makes its ice cream, and how they ecologically practice what they preach. I feel good supporting this kind of company, and Ben & Jerry’s keeps creating unique flavors with plenty of chunks that handsomely support me.
Put down this book and go get a pint now . . . I’ll be here when you get back. Grab one for me too!
Saint Peter’s Prep buddies Tony Conza, Peter DeCarlo, and Angelo Baldassare knew they wanted to go into business together in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the mid-1960s. The trio heard about submarine sandwiches being sold down the shore, and after one visit they knew exactly what line of work they wanted to get into. They would bring “salad on a sandwich” to North Jersey, but they didn’t want to call them subs or hoagies. As they flipped through a dictionary, they noticed a blimp that resembled the large-size shape of their new sandwich, and the name Blimpie was born.
Blimpie franchises began to sprout up all over the country during the next few decades as demand for submarine sandwiches skyrocketed. Seeking further growth, Blimpie started to drift a bit from its core sub business as it expanded its menu, and Subway took advantage of this sudden shift and took off.
Keep in mind that this was all well before the salad and health craze that took over the country. Traditional favorites such as ham and cheese or a BLT are on the menu, but a BLIMPIE is what keeps customers coming back. This unique combination of fresh meat and vegetables would remain a staple for many years to come.
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane . . . It’s a Blimpie
Blimpie offers a variety of different sandwiches, but the name of their famous sandwich is “BLIMPIE.” A big Blimpie benefit is its generosity with the fresh-sliced deli meat, vegetables, and toppings. Peppers are a particular favorite.
There is also the option to build your own sandwich with quality ingredients at your fingertips. That means there is an endless “secret menu” of subs, I mean BLIMPIES, that you can create.
The Blimpie Way means that your meat is layered with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, oil, vinegar, and spices stacked between two slices of fresh Italian bread. The resulting sandwich actually resembles a big blimp, and when you’re building a sandwich named after an enormous airship, I recommend going Hindenburg.
Spice Is Nice
It was 1977, the year of disco, bell-bottoms, and the debut of a fast food Cajun-style chicken restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas had a spicy chicken recipe, fresh-made buttermilk biscuits, and a formula for success they called Bojangles’. Fast food chicken was everywhere, but Fulk and Thomas added the Cajun spice that was missing. In just a few short years, no restaurant had a higher sales average than Bojangles’ did as it began to expand in the United States.
The Cajun chicken and its spiciness is only part of why Bojangles’ achieved such early success. The biscuits are what put this franchise over the top. It’s hard to beat a freshly made buttermilk biscuit, and soon chicken was being stuffed inside of them to make a tasty sandwich. Bojangles’ special spice was added to the Dirty Rice, Cajun Pintos, and other sides not previously available at fast food chicken restaurants. All of this spice gets washed down with some Legendary Iced Tea to complete the meal.
Bojangles’ sticks to what works and rarely adds new items to its menu. The core menu is not much different from when Bojangles’ opened back in the ’70s. If ain’t broke, don’t fix it—and that’s a credo Bojangles’ wisely continues to stick to.