February 12, 2007

Marriott

And the man behind the brand is...
Bill Marriott

The Marriott name is known for its hotels and resorts but it began as, and still primarily is, a food business. John Willard Marriott, known as Bill, was born in 1900. He grew up on the Utah range raising beets, herding sheep and serving the Mormon church. He gained a measure of renown around Ogden when, at the age of 14, he shot two brown bears in one day.

Marriott worked his way through the University of Utah selling woolen sweaters and long underwear in logging camps in the Northwest and when he graduated in 1927 he was ready for his own business. He became intrigued with a root beer he enjoyed during hot summer Utah days. Marriott would drive up to the curb and a waitress would bring out ice-cold mugs of 5¢ root beer to the car.

He learned that a man named Allen and a man named Wright had started
A & W Root Beer a few years earlier in Sacramento, selling only ice-cold root beer at their drive-ins. In the summer a good stand was averaging 5000 mugs a day. So Bill Marriott decided to stake his future to root beer.

He had become enamored with Washington, D.C. during a Mormon mission back east and that was where Marriott headed for his franchise. He leased eight feet of frontage from a baker and opened a nine-seat root beer stand on May 20, 1927 - the same day Lindbergh took off for Europe. Marriott placed a small radio of the countertop and prospective root beer buyers gathered round to hear the progress of America’s greatest aviator.

Inevitably Washington’s torrid summers give way to chilly winters. Obviously demand for ice-cold root beer would fall off. A & W franchises were required to sell only root beer but Marriott flew to Sacramento to obtain a special dispensation to include food on his menu. He didn’t want standard burgers and franks but opted for Mexican food, a specialty from home not often enjoyed in the nation’s capital.

When the heavily spiced chili and tamales and barbecued beef debuted Marriott called his new restaurant “Hot Shoppe;” hot food with a touch of English affectation. The new restaurant was a hit and Marriott barely waited for the cash register to fill before opening a second Hot Shoppe. Soon there was a chain of medium-priced family restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. Marriott waited for the Depression to slow his business but it never did.

Marriott worked non-stop but he was never more diligent than in selecting new sites for his restaurants. He opened a Hot Shoppe out by the Hoover Airport and noticed a trade had developed in passengers and crew taking out food for their flights. In 1937 Marriott started boxing lunches of ham or chicken sandwiches, a small carton of slaw, a frosted cupcake and an apple for Eastern airlines.
“Sky girls” served the first airline food along with hot coffee in thermos jugs.

Marriott’s catering business soon picked up government cafeterias and entered the hospital food service market as well. Bill Marriott had been in the food service business for 30 years when he opened his first hotel in Arlington, Virginia in 1957. Over the next few years, Marriott continued to open hotels as well as Hot Shoppes restaurants.

By 1964 Marriott was ready to slow down. Physically he had survived Hodgkins Disease, battled chronic nervous exhaustion and weathered several heart attacks. While maintaining nominal control of the business he turned daily operations over to his son Bill Jr.

It was hard to let go but Marriott could reflect back on the time his father had entrusted him with a herd of sheep to take to San Francisco on his own at the tender age of 14. His son was no less successful. By the time he succeeded his father as Chief Executive Officer in 1972 Bill Jr. had quadrupled the size of the company. Marriott Corporation now owned the Big-Boy restaurant chain and started the Roy Rogers fast food chain.

The elder Marriott invested his time in the Republican party, entertaining political luminaries on his ranch in northern Virginia. He died at age 84 at his New Hampshire summer home. The business he started by selling root beer for a nickel was grossing $4 billion a year.

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