What The Letters In A&W Really Stand For

The recipe for the world's best-selling root beer may be a secret (via A&W Harwichport), but the meaning behind the letters in the name is public knowledge — kind of, anyway. A&W doesn't keep the information hidden (via the A&W website), but it doesn't shout it from the rooftops either. Care to hazard a guess? Hint: It's not a cutesy play on words. Ready? The letters are straightforward initials — "A" stands for Roy Allen, the originator of the brand, and "W" stands for Frank Wright, his original business partner.

Allen didn't set out to be a root beer magnate. In fact, he was pushing 40 by the time he served his first mug. We're not even sure how the Illinois native landed in Central California. By some accounts (via The Record), Allen was a "roving businessman who liked to buy old buildings and fix them up." We do know (via P'Chelle International) he was running a hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he met a retired pharmacist who had been experimenting with recipes for a soft drink made from an unusual blend of bark, berries, herbs, and spices. According to some accounts, Allen bought the pharmacist's formula, though it's not entirely certain. That was in 1918.

Timing was everything

Before long, Allen had pulled up stakes, packed his things, and headed west to Lodi, California. According to The Record, via accounts gathered from a now-defunct A&W company newsletter, Allen opened a drug store in Lodi and began honing the recipe that would make him famous. In June 1919, the town of Lodi hosted a city-wide celebration honoring the return of World War I troops. As luck would have, the parade route passed right in front of Allen's drug store. The "roving businessman," as described by The Record, recognized an opportunity when he saw one. 

Allen set up a makeshift refreshment stand from the front of his drug store. It's been reported that on parade day, he served free samples of the beverage to passers-by. The soda was a hit. The next day he opened the stand again, this time selling iced 10-ounce mugs for 5 cents (via WTOP). That's right. The iconic root beer brand that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019 began as a pop-up roadside stand in Lodi, California.

A&W before the W

From what we can tell, Allen didn't initially have a brand name for his soda. It was just root beer, a variation of an age-old concoction made from herbs, berries, and bark (via Renegade Brewing). In fact, similar blends were already well-known by the time Allen entered the market, with 19th-century farm brewers across the United States creating their own recipes that incorporated all kinds of tree barks blended with different flavorings ranging from juniper berries and coriander seeds to vanilla bean and licorice. 

While some made root beer for their own consumption, others — including Charles Elmer Hires of Hires Root Beer fame — sold it as a cure-all elixir. (So it actually makes sense that Allen got the recipe for what would become A&W Root Beer from a retired pharmacist who had been experimenting with different blends of root beers.)

Allen's blend sounds more refreshing than medicinal. While the recipe remains a corporate secret, taste tests reveal hints to the tweaks Allen may have made. Eat Delights describes it as "creamy" with "hints of vanilla." Taste of Home notes its "mellow, creamy taste" and points to a clue in plain sight: The A&W brand lists "real aged vanilla" on its packaging.

Roy Allen finds the Wright partner

A few years after perfecting his recipe and introducing residents of the central California town to the delights of his blend of root beer — and adding a second location in the area — Allen teamed up with Frank Wright, an employee at one of his stores. The partners set their sites on expanding the business by offering franchise opportunities. They named their venture A&W (via WTOP) and opened a stand in Sacramento, California (via P'Chelle International). A&W went on to establish what is regarded as the United States' first franchise restaurant chain.

While the "W" in A&W has endured for more than a century, Frank Wright left the business early on. Allen bought Wright out in 1924 but managed to trademark the brand name (via ThoughtCo). When Allen retired in 1950, he sold A&W to Gene Hurtz, who expanded the brand internationally during his roughly 14-year tenure, according to Amherst College. A&W has changed hands multiple times since Roy Allen handed out that first mug of root beer in 1919, but when the company celebrated its 100th anniversary two years ago, the milestone must have been especially poignant for its owners, a group of franchisees who purchased A&W in 2011. Seems fitting in a back-to-its-roots kind of way.

Back to the future in Lodi

Roy Allen was a stickler for details. As reported by The Record, an early licensee agreement stipulated the coils on the refrigeration units used to store and serve Allen's root beer had to be covered with at least 15 inches of chipped ice at all times to ensure a serving temperature no higher than 40 degrees. Standards also called for the company's signature glass mugs to be stored in chipped ice.

Maybe that's why the A&W legacy has endured for more than a century. While the original drug store location at 13 W. Pine Street in Lodi, Calif. is long gone — it's currently home to a dog grooming business (via Atlas Obscura) — there's still an A&W in Lodi. It's located at 216 E. Lodi Avenue (via A&W's website), not far away from where Roy Allen served mugs to returning World War I troops and parade-goers. And you can still get freshly made root beer. According to the A&W website, "It's still made fresh on site with real cane sugar and a proprietary blend of herbs, bark, spices and berries."