From Sheep to Sodas: The Early Years of J. Willard Marriott

"A man should keep on being constructive, and do constructive things,” J. Willard Marriott once said. “He should take part in the things that go on in this wonderful world. He should be someone to be reckoned with. He should live life and make every day count, to the very end. Sometimes it's tough. But that's what I'm going to do.”

That is exactly what John Willard Marriott did. What began as a small nine-stool root beer stand in 1927 and, later, a chain of family restaurants in 1932, Marriot grew into one of the largest hospitality, hotel chains and food services companies in the world. By the time Marriott died in 1985, the company he founded owned more than 1,400 restaurants and 143 hotels and resorts around the world, which together earned revenues in excess of $4.5 billion.

Marriott was born into a poor family on September 17, 1900. His father was a Mormon sheepherder, who Marriott began to work for when he was just 8 years old. By the age of 14, Marriott had been entrusted with taking the sheep from Utah across to such cities as San Francisco. “My father gave me the responsibility of a man,” said Marriott years later. “He would tell me what he wanted done, but never said much about how to do it. It was up to me to find out for myself.”

When he was 19, Marriott traveled to New England, where he spent the next two years preaching the Gospel. After returning home to discover his family had gone bankrupt in the wake of an economic recession, Marriott decided to go back and finish his education. Despite never finishing high school, Marriott talked his way into a community college. He also negotiated a deal whereby he would pay for his tuition by teaching theology classes.

Marriott eventually transferred to the University of Utah, paying tuition through a job he took selling woollen underwear to lumberjacks. It was during his senior year that Marriott decided to take advantage of the heat and open an A&W root beer stand in Salt Lake City. With modest success, Marriott decided it was time for his next move.

Marriott, with $1,500 of his own saved money, along with a $1,500 loan, opened a small root beer stand in Washington, D.C. All summer long, Marriott hit the streets and experienced booming success. But as winter came, Marriott’s sales crashed.

Instead of giving up, Marriott decided to cover up the old A&W root beer sign and throw up a sign that read “Hot Shoppe”. It was his first indoor venture, and he began by doling out large quantities of Mexican food. By handing out free coupons on street corners and focusing on quality, Marriott was soon able to open up two more locations. He also bought the empty lot next to one of his Hot Shoppes, removed the curb, and began offering what was one of the first drive-in services in America.

With waiters, called “curbers,” serving food to cars at their windows, customers could not get enough. And, neither could Marriott, who immediately began thinking of his next big move. By 1932, Marriott had seven Hot Shoppes and was almost a millionaire. But it was not enough for the ever aspiring entrepreneur.

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