Even at 2 p.m. on a cloudy Wednesday, the bar of The Root Beer Stand is completely full. Customers sit shoulder-to-shoulder as they sip the titular homemade beverages and eat hot dogs, burgers, chili cheese sandwiches, and ice cream. A Cincinnati Reds baseball game plays on the television above the kitchen window as popcorn pops in the background. Here, it always feels like summer.
The Root Beer Stand is located in Sharonville, Ohio, just 25 minutes north of downtown Cincinnati. When the restaurant was founded in 1957, Sharonville was a small railroad town. Though the town has grown substantially in the past sixty years into a mid-sized suburb, as I sit outside at the picnic benches behind the restaurant, trains whistle in the distance, harkening back to the town’s origins.
For 62 years, locals have been coming to The Root Beer Stand to get their summertime treats. Open six months of the year—mid-March through September—the restaurant serves more than 100 gallons of root beer and more than 500 hotdogs on a typical summer day. Add those numbers up, and one can estimate that The Root Beer Stand has sold more than one million gallons of root beer and five million hotdogs in its lifetime.
“It’s a generational thing and we’re a locally-known summertime place,” says Eric Burroughs, who took over ownership of The Root Beer Stand from his parents-in-law last year. “It’s been here all these years, so grandparents came and brought their grandkids, and now those grandkids are old enough to have their own grandkids.”
A hot dog with everything on it
Some customers come so frequently that they have menu items named after them.
In the mid-90s, a customer named Timmy, who worked at the local General Electric aviation plant, came to The Root Beer Stand every day during his lunch break and said the same thing: “I’ll take a hotdog with everything on it. Everything you’ve got back there in the kitchen, throw it on there!”
Burrough’s mother-in-law, Jackie, joked with Timmy that the next year they’d put the hotdog on the menu and name it after him. Thinking the “everything hotdog” would be nothing more than an inside joke, Jackie put the Timmy Dog on the menu. Much to everyone’s surprise—including Timmy’s—it was a resounding success.
“It’s got relish, krout, mustard, ketchup, onions, hot sauce, chili, cheese, everything on it,” says Burroughs. “It almost weighs like a burrito.”
The Timmy Dog is still just as popular today. While sitting at the bar, drinking my root beer float and eating the first hotdog I’ve had in over a decade—I went with the chili cheese dog with mustard and onions on top, and it was absolutely as delicious as I remembered—three people around me ordered the Timmy Dog in the span of half an hour.
Burrough’s go-to snack is a simple chili cheese sandwich—The Root Beer Stand’s version of a chili cheese dog without the dog. It’s a crowd pleaser. Fear not, pescetarians, vegetarians, and vegans: The Root Beer Stand also sells fish sandwiches and black bean burgers to meet all of your lunchtime needs.
The root beer floats are creamy and rich—a child’s summertime dream. Burroughs says you won’t get a root beer float anywhere else in the world that tastes quite like this one. The secret? The Root Beer Stand has its own 280-foot-deep well that has stood beside the building and furnished the base for the restaurant’s root beer since it was built. The water is EPA-tested annually, and, unlike city water, doesn’t have any additives—so what you’re tasting in your root beer float is pure, cool groundwater.
The restaurant also does not carbonate or package any of their root beer ahead of time. All of the root beer that the stand serves comes directly from an uncarbonated batch, where it is then pushed through a line that carbonates the liquid as it comes out of the tap.
“So it has just a little bit of bubbles, but not a lot,” says Burroughs. “That’s what gives it its unique flavor.”
A family business
Founded in 1957 as the A&W Root Beer Stand, the restaurant has only been owned by two families since its founding. Mick and Nancy Rideour, and Nancy’s parents Jim and Catherine Clark, originally owned the restaurant for 33 years. Mick and Nancy’s daughter, Sue Knight, still works at the stand, and says she can’t even begin to estimate how many hotdogs she’s made in her lifetime.
In 1990, after Jim and Catherine passed away and Mick and Nancy decided they were ready to retire, Scott and Jackie Donley took over the business. Their children made hot dogs and root beer floats at the stand as teenagers. And, in 2013, after 23 years of hard work, Burroughs—the Donley’s son-in-law—began the process of taking over the business. He gained full ownership last year.
Burroughs, who formerly lived in Tennessee and worked as a graphic designer, took over the family business because he knew his in-laws were hoping to retire soon, he loved the flexibility of the job, and he knew how important the establishment is to the local community.
“I wanted to take over something that was already really successful and was already appreciated. I felt like I could carry that on,” he says. “We didn’t want anybody else to take it who didn’t have the same appreciation for it—and I have a deep appreciation for it, even though I didn’t grow up here like so many of our customers.”
Hats off to simplicity
At its core, The Root Beer Stand is about community.
Walk into the restaurant and you’ll find dozens of hats from various competing companies, organizations, and sports teams hanging from the ceiling. This tradition started back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when The Root Beer Stand was situated on the main thoroughfare from Cincinnati to Dayton.
A truck driver left his hat on the counter, so the owner hung it up in the doorway so that next time the driver came by, he’d remember to retrieve it. A few days later, a driver from a competitor’s company came into the restaurant and insisted that if the restaurant was going to hang up the competitor’s hat, they must hang up his as well. From then on, every time someone left a hat at the restaurant, it would be added to the ceiling. The hats represent individuals from different parts of the country, different walks of life, and different affiliations. But they all came to this restaurant because of their love for simple food.
“There’s a lot of complexity in the world and there’s a lot of reason to argue and fight, but this is just a simple, calm place,” says Burroughs. “Out front, there are guys in suits that came from their office sitting next to the guys that worked at the sewer lines out front. Everyone can enjoy it.”
So much of The Root Beer Stand harkens back to the simplicity of an earlier era. Everything— from the building decor and the paint on the playset out back, to the souvenir mugs and employee t-shirts—still emits the original A&W orange hue. Everything on the menu, including the famed Timmy Dog, costs less than seven dollars. And even though the restaurant now accepts all major credit cards (with a small transaction fee), almost every customer during my short visit left a few dollar bills on the counter and shouted a “thank you” into the kitchen on their way out.
People come to The Root Beer Stand for the first time because they want a nostalgic experience, says Burroughs. They keep coming back because it’s a place that makes them feel good and feeds them well. “A lot of it comes down to atmosphere, and you just can’t get that at any other place.”
For Burroughs, nothing says summertime more than a good hotdog and a nice refreshing root beer float. And he doesn’t just say that because it’s his job.
“Here, it feels like you’re having a friends-and-family get together almost every day,” he says. “It’s a good atmosphere to work in when the people who come to your workplace are in a good mood. No complaints when you have to go to work in a place like that.”
If you go
The Root Beer Stand is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. through September. The restaurant accepts cash and all major credit cards (with a small transaction fee).