AURORA — What does a homecoming parade for World War I service members have to do with A&W drive-ins, like the one in Aurora?
Well, a lot actually.
That’s where the drive-in restaurant chain’s first frosty mug of root beer was served.
And, A&W, rooted in a small California root beer stand — and founded on June 20, 1919, in Lodi, Calif. — was not only the nation’s first franchise restaurant chain.
It’s also, in fact, older than sliced bread (which has only been around since 1928, if you were wondering).
These, and other fun facts, can be found on the chain’s online 100-year anniversary history page.
But, for even more fun, you can “drive in and chill out” with a root beer float or a coney dog at one of the country’s 600 A&Ws — in Aurora.
“We try hard to be the old A&W everyone remembers, with good-quality products and great service,” said John Rossiter, who owns the restaurant with wife, Deanne “Dee.” They are in their 22nd season there and the longest-running owners of the drive-in, in existence in Aurora for more than 60 years.
A&W, celebrating its 100th birthday this summer, is “vintage Americana,” after all. “We try to stay nostalgic” — with traditional car-hop service everyone remembers and “made-daily” homemade root beer served in a frosty mug.
A family fun cruise night is held twice each summer, on the third Tuesday of June and second Tuesday of August. Patrons and classic car enthusiasts — and the owners — really “dig” the trip back in time, watching youngsters engaged in hula hoop contests garbed in poodle skirts.
“Fun” is really what the business is all about. A sign at the restaurant reads: “Hometown Food Made Fun!!”
“I love coming to work. We try to have fun here every day,” Dee said.
“We have a good partnership with the franchise, and I’m very happy with the A&W product quality,” added John, a native of the tiny town of Walthill in northeast Nebraska.
The couple met while working as social workers in Sioux City, Iowa. They returned to Dee’s hometown of Aurora and took over the A&W not long after marrying in May of 1997. “It was nice to be back to small-town living,” John said.
At the longtime drive-in, you can sit in your car for at-your-window service, or order at the front window and sit on the outside patio.
The menu is quite extensive. From the Papa Burger to the bacon double cheese; cheese curds to chicken chunks; corn dog nuggets to coleslaw; shrimp dinner to a fish sandwich; chili cheese fries to a pizza burger.
Just in case you were wondering, A&W sold 2,060,988 pounds of cheese curds nationally last year.
Of course, there are plenty of treats — shakes and malts, sundaes and cones, Polar Swirls, freezes, and kiddie- to jumbo-sized root beer floats.
“It’s a great environment,” Dee said.
As drive-ins are becoming more of a novelty, the Aurora A&W has gown into “a destination eatery,” John said. People come from a 60-plus-mile radius.
The drive-in is going strong, thanks to loyal customers — some who eat there several times a week — and motivated employees, say the owners. Some workers are on their 18th season.
A majority of employees are high school and college students, many who landed their first job there. “They keep coming back year after year,” Dee said.
The owners pride themselves in teaching young people “life skills,” such as interpersonal communication, managing money, setting and accomplishing goals. “Things they can take forward in life,” John said.
It’s gratifying, he said, to see 15- and 16-year-olds build confidence and “do the job without being told what to do.”
The Rossiters receive much positive feedback from parents, as well.
Car hop Kaitlyn Olson is working her third season at A&W, and “it’s definitely not my last,” said the student.
“I feel so reassured knowing I have a job after finishing my freshman year at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in May. A&W is more than just a job. My fellow coworkers and bosses are my second family. John and Dee have the biggest hearts and are very supportive.”
Adults enjoy the job, the tips, and the happy atmosphere just as much.
Amber Peterson is what she terms, “a lifer.”
“I started working for John and Deanne in the early summer of 2005. I was 31 and that is when I fell in love with my job for the first time ever,” she said.
“I was going through a divorce and raising six kids. It was tough, but my checks paid the bills and the tips I earned helped with the every day things. After a few years I was able to save enough money to put a down payment on my own house, which I now own.”
Peterson said four of her kids have worked at the Aurora A&W, two of them still do.
“The skills that having this particular job has taught my children, and others, is great — counting change back, communication, responsibility, taking ownership of one’s mistakes, and being proud of a job well done. All seem to be lacking in all ages nowadays.”
Peterson said she keeps “coming back” to be “part of something great. … The nostalgic feeling, our customers, coworkers, and most of all, John and Dee.”
For Kasie Johnson, the Aurora A&W was her first serving job. The 29-year-old has worked there eight seasons and says she is impressed with the location’s “cleanliness, pride in their products, and amazing treatment of employees,” which has “really set the bar high.”
The drive-in is open mid-March to mid-September, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., currently; until 9 p.m. during the peak season.
It doesn’t matter what the weather is like in March, John said. Customers are burning rubber to get there.
Running a seasonal business, however, comes with sacrifice, say the owners, who arrive for prep work each morning at 7:30. “We give up a lot during the busy time of the year,” like family get-togethers and summertime events, John said.
But owning the business “has been a real plus for us,” he said. “We are happy to be part of the community.”
“It’s a real treat for us,” Dee said — pun, perhaps, intended. The sweetest part, she added, is mentoring young employees and “being part of their lives.”
“I feel a great sense of pride working at one of the last drive-ins in Minnesota,” Olson said. “A&W has been a staple on the Iron Range for many years, and I am so grateful to be part of it.”
And, going back to its first root beer roots, the chain has proudly raised more than $800,000 for veterans-related charities since 2014, according to the company.
John Rossiter points to the words on his orange A&W T-shirt. “Happiness is Root Beer,” it reads.
Yes, he says, that’s what it’s all about.