It was just an old hot dog stand on the side of the road in Troy, Mich. I think it dated back to the 50’s when Troy was just a quiet little farming town.
By the time I moved to Troy in the mid-seventies, the town was evolving into a booming, modern suburb. Bill’s A&W was already starting to look a little out of place among the strip malls and fast food restaurants that seemed to sprout like dandelions in the Spring.
But for a kid playing little league baseball in the summer of 1975, Bill’s A&W was pure magic. Bill, the owner, handed out little orange cards for one free small root beer by the thousands. Parents passed around a coffee can in the stands during the game, everybody chipping in a buck or two. After the game, we’d pile into our coach’s giant suburban or a parent’s wood paneled station wagon and head over to Bill’s for a root beer and a foot-long hot dog or chili dog.
The place was always packed with kids from our league…we’d swap stories about who won, who had big hits and who pitched well. We’d brag a little and we’d tell our friends from other teams to watch out because we would whip ‘em next week.
I played ball in Troy until I was 17 and the post-game visits there were always special. Nothing beat a trip to Bill’s in the beat up Duster my dad bought to cart around our equipment. On a hot, humid Michigan summer night, nothing celebrated victory (or took the sting out of the many losses!) than an ice cold root beer and a foot-long chili dog.
Back then, I didn’t know about things like niche marketing, brand building or customer relationships. I just knew I loved root beer, chili dogs and baseball. But, looking back now, I realize that Bill was a genius. He was probably the biggest sponsor of Troy Baseball Boosters, our local youth league. He always sponsored a team. He always took out a huge ad in the program and he was always there selling hot dogs and chili dogs on All-Star Saturday at Boulan Park. I’m sure sponsoring TBB was his one and only marketing expense.
But, his little orange cards and his constant support of youth baseball created foot traffic at his store and probably made him a very nice living. More important, he created a loyal customer base that truly loved his business and his product.
I never fully realized just how much we all loved Bill’s A&W until I joined a Troy Baseball Boosters Alumni page on Facebook. The founder of the page threw out the question “what was your favorite memory about playing TBB.”
Two answers popped up again and again…one was playing under the lights at Boulan Park. The other was going to Bill’s A&W.
Bill’s A&W didn’t just sell root beer and hot dogs. It made memories. And that’s an important lesson for any business looking to build a strong brand. Do you really understand your customers? Are you creating meaningful relationships? Any business that does it like Bill’s did will hit a home run!