Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Hintonburg A&W Drive-In

Long-time residents of the area will likely remember with fondness the A&W Drive-In that existed on Wellington Street in Hintonburg for more than a decade. I had certainly heard of it before, but had never seen a photo until recently, when I discovered I owned a couple of photos of it in a large collection of old local photos I acquired a few months back! So a perfect excuse to make a short post to talk about the greatness of A&W. The Hintonburg location was symbolic of A&W's meteoric rise in the 1960s, to its equally as crushing fall in the late 1970s.

The A&W was located at the corner of Wellington and McCormick, now the site of the Royal Bank. It opened in 1968, was expanded in 1974, and was gone around 1979-1980. Not just A&W as the occupant, but the building itself lasted only 12 or so years. A very brief existence for sure.

This corner has a very long and important place in Hintonburg's history, which I have touched on a few times in various articles over the last few years, but it goes all the way back to the early 1890s and the opening of Alex McCormick's grain elevator and mill on this site. It was soon after taken over by one of McCormick's top employees, James Forward, who ran the operation, with a public-facing wholesale and retail flour and feed business, until 1942. Forward being one of Hintonburg's most prominent citizens in its history.

That original grain mill structure was demolished, and replaced with a new shop that lasted from 1943 until 1966. This was first known as the "West End Tire and Vulcanizing Shop", and for a while Copeland's Builders Supply (and later McLennan Plumbing and Heating) operated out of an addition at the rear. In 1957 it became an Esso Service Station, operated for nearly a decade by Robert Poaps, hence why it was better known as "Bob's Esso". 

Ad for Bob's Esso in the Journal, March 14, 1964

Bob's Esso closed in early 1966, and the empty shop appears to have sat vacant for a year or so, until A&W acquired the lot and built the new restaurant. I surprisingly had difficulty finding out exactly when it opened; they seemingly had no ads to promote a grand opening, and I couldn't locate any building permit info. The best I can put it is that it opened somewhere between the fall of 1967 and the summer of 1968.

A&W started in the States back in 1919 when Roy Allen opened a root beer stand in Lodi, California. He expanded this into a restaurant in 1923, in Sacramento, with a partner Frank Wright (the W in A&W). However the focus in the early years was on the root beer product, and less so on the burgers.

It was actually A&W in Canada that took the franchise to new levels. The first A&W in Canada opened on Portage Avenue in 1956, and it was in the Canadian market where the food-restaurant focus developed, and it was in Canada where the burger family (papa, mama, teen) originated, later copied by the US version. 

A&W Canada succeeded on two fronts: a successful family fast food restaurant during the day, and a popular "teenybopper and cruising" spot for the baby-boomer kids in the evening. A&W was at the forefront of the novelty appeal of a "drive-in" restaurant, which became a major trend of the 1960s. Cars and highways had exploded in popularity, and building off this popularity was the idea of dining in your car. Pulling up and having a server come to your car window to take your order (in some cases wearing roller skates, combining another popular 60s fad), then deliver the meal on a tray to your window was a fantastic success.

At their peak in the 70s, there were more A&Ws in North America than McDonalds. The fact that an A&W opened in Hintonburg is no surprise. It was the fifth location to open in Ottawa. The Hintonburg A&W initially featured drive-in and take-out service only; dine-in service would be added a few years later.

A&W at 1145 Wellington Street West, circa 1978.
View looking west (Holy Rosary Church in background)

Google Streetview of the same spot today!

A&W looking north and slightly east
(Now the site of the RBC bank, corner of McCormick)

This is an ad below from March of 1967, listing the 4 Ottawa A&W locations, including on Merivale Road a little south of Baseline (where the newer strip mall now exists with Tutti Frutti and Colonnade Pizza), and just west of Woodroffe at 993 Richmond Road (now where Tim Hortons stands), which was Ottawa's first location, that opened in June of 1963:

Ottawa Journal, March 10, 1967.

This appears to be the first ad listing the Hintonburg location, and it didn't run until November 1970. Interestingly, it's listed as an "A&W Coffee Shop":

Ottawa Journal, November 27, 1970.

This is an ad from 1971, advertising the 35 cent Teenburger, but also the six Ottawa locations:

Ottawa Journal, September 4, 1971

In 1974, the Hintonburg A&W was renovated, to become a new "Inside/Outside A&W". An addition was added to the east side of the building, creating a dine-in section to the restaurant. It had a grant re-opening in early January of 1975.

Ottawa Journal, January 10, 1975, promoting the
grand re-opening of the Hintonburg A&W

The two aerial photos below show the difference before and after the renovation. A&W is in the centre of the photo, with the four square dots on top of the building. The spacious parking lot is alongside McCormick, and it appears there is something in between the spaces, on the shorter lines? Perhaps some kind of menu stand or a tray holder or ?  Also I'm not sure what those two white circles are in the parking lot (they also have an oddly-shaped line running off of them). My guess is overhead lighting?

May 13, 1969 aerial photo. Wellington running top to bottom,
and McCormick running to the left off Wellington. A&W is in
the centre of the photo, and the spacious parking lot alongside
McCormick. A bit of the Grace Hospital at bottom right.

Same view but after the renovation. You can see the small dining area has been added, taking up a quarter of the parking lot:

June 24, 1978 aerial photo, post-renovation

As hugely popular as A&W had become in the 60s and early 70s, they declined fast in the mid-to-late 70s. Eating habits changed, and people's habits changed as well. A shift in the industry saw fast food businesses begin offering drive-thru windows. A&W lagged behind the other fast food giants, largely sticking to drive-ins, must to their detriment.

In 1975, A&W Canada launched what was originally to be a temporary advertising campaign, featuring a character, The Great Root Bear. The mascot became very popular, and was eventually adopted for A&W in the States as well, and remained for the long haul. One of the few positives in a decade of mis-steps for A&W.

A&W Canada's corporate approach changed in 1977-78. The chain decided to franchise all of its restaurants, rather than operate them from a HQ level. The Ottawa locations were the last holdouts nationally, largely because head office was unable to find owners to take over the franchise restaurants.

Corporate also shifted their target market at this time to adults. They began redecorating their restaurants and changing menus to "satisfy the growing sophistication of the fast food market", with "plush decor, more sophisticated hamburgers with exotic sauces as well as a range of competitively priced burgers" designed to give A&W a "greater share of the growing adult trade".

In the summer of 1978, the Merivale Road A&W drive-in location closed (A&W blamed altered traffic patterns), while the Bronson Avenue location closed later that fall (A&W blamed its 24 hour a day schedule), leaving only the Hintonburg and St. Laurent Blvd locations as the last two in Ottawa.

The Hintonburg A&W closed sometime in late 1979 or early 1980, and the restaurant was demolished soon after.

A&W resurrected operations during the 1980s, by targeting locations in shopping malls (the eat-in restaurant in Carlingwood was a favourite spot of my family's in the 1980s). Drive-in locations were almost fully phased out, the last one of its kind in Canada was closed in 2000, in Langley, B.C. In the last ten years, A&W has made many more changes to appeal to a wider audience, and have now moved into second place behind only McDonald's for locations (there are 900 in Canada now, closing in on McDonald's 1,400). For me personally, it's my fast food of choice, far and away in a different class than the McDonald's and Burger Kings.

So there you have it, the story of the relatively short-lived Hintonburg A&W Drive-In!

Bonus photo I just found, shared to the Mechanicsville Facebook group, posted by Dan Lacelle in March 2015.

Wellington A&W posted by Dan Lacelle to Facebook in 2015

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! Did not know that this existed, and I used to go into that bank all the time when I was a customer. thanks for this.