St. Helena A&W Celebrates 50 Years
By Kristin Ranuio
A&W of St. Helena initially had a long, gravel driveway, with carhops waiting for you as you drove in. Today there’s a drive– through, and they have social media pages. 50 years ago you would pull into the A&W lot and a row of carhops, all men at the time, would be waiting. One would jump on your car’s running board and take your order as you drove to the restaurant located in the far back of the lot. When you got there, he would hop off (carhop, get it?) and run in with your order. When the restaurant got updated, they put in a large awning you would drive underneath, with a menu at each space. You’d park, order, and, more often than not, eat right in your car.
A lot has changed since former St. Helena mayor, Lowell Smith, opened that restaurant 50 years ago. But, more importantly, much has stayed the same. The kids that used to cross the street from the high school to eat lunch on their break are now bringing their kids and grandchildren. The current owner, Peter Knight, worked there as a teen in the 70s. He has always worked for A&W. His wife, Annette, is his partner in the business. It’s a family affair, and the family–friendly vibe is noticeable.
A&W, as a company, began in 1919 and was THE first, franchised, restaurant–chain. Our own Napa Valley’s opened in 1966 and quickly became a mainstay. At one point it was the franchisor’s highest–volume location, unheard of in a town of only 6,000. But, those 6,000 have kept coming back, along with other Napa Valley residents, and so have some of their friends and, we can’t leave out the heavy tourist traffic.
Says Knight, “I’ve easily served over 1 million root–beer floats. “Root beer is where the A&W story began, with the very first A&W root beer being served during a homecoming parade for World War I vets, and its frosty–mug taste has been delighting people everywhere, ever since.
While root beer is the first thing most people think of when hearing A&W, something you may not know is that they are credited with inventing the bacon burger. As the story goes, in Michigan, in 1963, the owner of the local A&W noticed his repeat customers constantly requesting strips of bacon on top of their cheeseburgers. He decided to add it to the restaurant’s menu. It was a hit, and is now standard fare across the country at many other restaurants. This story has been corroborated by multiple journalists who investigated in the 60’s to find out if it was true and, in 2014, A&W launched an ad campaign boasting about it. No one came forward to contest its validity.
Another feather in the A&W cap is for holding the world’s record for the largest, root–beer float. St. Helena’s own Knight also had a franchise in Lodi, Ca (the birthplace of A&W) where the float was made. In 1999, he made the record with a whopping 2562.5 gallons of root beer and 400 gallons of vanilla ice cream.Today the old awning is gone and the drive–through, the only one for A&W for 20 miles in either direction, has been added. They have a Facebook page (StHelenaAW) to keep in touch with their customers, and make a constant effort to keep up with the times. One recent update is the new, breakfast menu coming this month, with fresh biscuits, cinnamon rolls, eggs, hash browns, yogurt parfaits, and more. All of the food is made–to–order, not pre–made. Burgers are made with ground chuck and sirloin; chicken tenders are hand breaded and cooked in the store, not frozen. Even the root beer is made–fresh daily, with real cane sugar, never corn syrup. The buns are made without preservatives; they only have a three–day, shelf–life, and only fresh produce will do.
The menu may change and update; even the building itself has changed, but what hasn’t changed is that A&W has stood at 501 Main Street in St. Helena for 50 years; quite a feat for a franchise–restaurant in a small town.
It feels more small–town than franchise with Knight, the same person who worked there as a teen, and then with his wife/partner Annette owning and operating the restaurant, with another prior, A&W owner, Tom Redman still owning the land. Familiar faces go in and out the door, and root beer is back to being served in frosty, glass mugs. The Papa Burger is still on the menu, but now you can get it with a side of cheese curds. A&W has managed to modernize while staying a classic.
It’s a recipe for success that has lasted at the St. Helena A&W for fifty years, with no end in sight.