Probably Not the Way to Run a Restaurant

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: jetalone

I happened to be driving by an A&W restaurant the other day. I also happened to be thirsty. So I stopped in to order a frosty mug of root beer.

“We’re out of root beer,” the worker told me.

How can A&W run out of root beer? It doesn’t seem like the inventory costs associated with keeping a small buffer stock of your marquee product are very large. You might think that the first rule at A&W would be to always have root beer.

In defense of the restaurant, it was 11 am and the store had just opened. Perhaps the new shipment of root beer had gotten unexpectedly delayed and was arriving any minute.

Two days later, I once again found myself thirsty as I was driving by this same A&W. So I stopped in to order a frosty mug of root beer.

“I’m sorry,” the worker said, “We’re out of root beer.”

I think it is no coincidence that A&W and KFC are owned by the same company.

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COMMENTS: 62


  1. coldtusker says:

    Sigh, so they have other stuff but not what they are famous for? ROOT BEER????

    How can you be out of a product that comes in a concentrated form/liquid & all it needs is a little CO2 + water???

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  2. Travers says:

    I saw on Food Network that A&W’s in the US make their own root beer in the back from a mix from the corporate office + cane sugar + carbonated water.

    The A&W’s here in Canada used to be owned by Unilever, and a friend of mine who works in the States says the Canadian A&W’s are much better than American ones. Especially the food.

    Hmm, according to wikipedia, A&W Canada is now privately owned through a management buyout.

    All I know is, when you come to Canada: try the A&W Mozza burger. It is so vastly superior to anything the A&W US restaurants serve.

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  3. Robert says:

    Stores run out of stock all the time; restaurants are much like stores with limited stock (lest said stock go bad). It’s really not that hard to believe that they were out of root beer, even for a couple of days.

    I work at a pizza place; we’ve been “dangerously” low on dough a couple of times – we’ve had 2-3 busy days’ worth of sales on what is normally a slow day, and we can’t get the truck there any faster, so we hope we don’t run out before the truck comes for its next scheduled delivery.

    The clerk may also have been fibbing a bit; it may be that the root beer dispenser was broken; it’s sometimes easier to apologize for running out of an item than to explain that the tube is broken (quoth the customer “well, then, use a different tube”).

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  4. MRB says:

    I think the outages are planner, or at least, not avoided. Once you go in the store or drive through, it’s very unlikely that you don’t make a purchase. So why keep high stock levels of your cheapest items, when if you don’t have it, the customer is likely to,urchase something a little more expensive?

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  5. Mark Adler says:

    Once on long drive I stopped for a cup of coffee at a Dunkin Donuts. Caving in to my sweet tooth I also ordered a doughnuts. They were out. Out of doughnuts. At Dunkin Donuts.

    I wasn’t upset; just amused.

    It’s been a few years, and your story here, Steven, reminded me of it.

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  6. adora says:

    Arby’s in Miami often run out of roast beef.

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  7. Nic says:

    I was at an Arby’s once that was out of roast beef.

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  8. Mike says:

    In the last five years I have been to two Italian restaurants, who have discovered they had “run out of pasta” just as the evening shift was beginning, and evidently not had anyone willing to run down to the supermarket and buy some retail product.

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  9. Chris says:

    I find it of interest that A&W in Canada is owned separately from A&W in the United States. Back in in the 60s maybe ? the franchise owners bought the rights in Canada and the difference between going to A&W in Canada and A&W in the United States is night and day.

    In Canada, A&W stores are all homogeneous as you would expect from a national chain, while in the US, I found that a few that I went to were different and didn’t even have the same menu as each other, not to mention that you can find an A&W in small towns across canada, and in RI, where I lived, there were 3 if I recall correctly.

    But an A&W running out of root beer? That takes the cake.

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  10. Walt says:

    There used to be a KFC just blocks from my house, and I had two young kids who loved fried chicken. Went there a lot, and got increasingly frustrated by the way the place was run. But the end came the night that I was told that they were out of chicken! It was about 7:00 on a weekday night, and the amazing thing was that the staff was completely matter-of-fact about having run out! In fact, they acted like they thought I was being weird about being surprised. I never returned. And soon thereafter the place closed. I still find it kind of hard to believe.

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  11. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    If you want to keep a gambler coming back for more, use intermittent random rewards. Yes, it worked on you. You kept coming back.

    And rare things are savored longer and sought after harder. If you could get rootbeer everytime without fail, when the rootbeer truck unexplainable ran out, you would never return.

    Just think of it as a one armed bandit gambling machine trying to maximize its profit..

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  12. sonora says:

    In St Louis, Panera is known as St Louis Bread Company. On more than one occasion they have run out of bread.

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  13. trace says:

    If you were thirsty, why in the world would you want Root Beer? Maybe the store was trying to help you.

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  14. Dan says:

    This is all a cover up by the liberal media – America needs to pull its collective head out of the sand and realize what is going on. This is the great sassafras shortage of 2010!

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  15. Ned says:

    I was met with a look of terror early one morning when I ordered a cup of coffee at a sparkling local coffee shop. The recently promoted day manager had forgotten to brew any coffee.

    I was told at a local Wal Mart snack bar that they could not fill my son’s order for nachos and cheese because they were out of nachos. Next to our blue, formica booth was a huge display of packaged nachos. The clerk thought it great anathema when I suggested that she could just buy some regular stock off the sales floor to fill orders.

    When I gently suggested that some lettuce was needed on a salad bar at a Pizza Hut, my waitress quickly brought me an entire head of dripping, uncut produce.

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  16. Ian Kemmish says:

    Somewhere, there’s an evil economist tracking you via GPS, driving round in a car full of root beer.

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  17. matt says:

    first world problems, man.

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  18. Christopher Browne says:

    This is certainly the sort of mistake that’s a big deal.

    When they’re selling a product that:
    a) Has the highest conceivable markup of anything they can sell;
    b) Is the “marquee product” for which they’re noted;
    c) Has a further “lowering of cost” in that it doesn’t involve royalties to other companies (e.g. – enhancing a);
    d) Involves syrup with a shelf-life measured in months (e.g. – on the order of a year) – contrast with vegetables that last days, at most;

    It is rather surprising that they would allow stores to run short of root beer syrup. Larger orders should improve economies of scale in a number of ways.

    One must suppose reasons why they might want to minimize syrup stocks.

    Is A&W Root Beer syrup particularly resalable, or otherwise attractive for thievery? That seems unlikely!

    The main alternative is that the organization has particularly poor management. That’s actually reasonably credible – A&W is not a “top tier” fast food place with reputation for highly policied operations like McDonalds. The operation essentially failed in the 1970s, so there’s some history there.

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  19. David says:

    I have been turned away from a Pizza Hut at 8PM (closing time was 10) when they were out of dough to make crust.

    I have been turned away from a wine bar that had no Chardonnay. Not any label.

    It’s called poor planning.

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  20. Gary says:

    For some reason A&W tastes significanly better from the restaurant than anywhere else.

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  21. David says:

    BTW — the no-Chardonnay wine bar? 5PM on a Friday.

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  22. zoltan says:

    I agree w/Travers – the Mozza Burgers in Canada are awesome – combine with a large onion rings and a large (diet!) root beer, it’s my favorite fast-food meal.

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  23. Nosybear says:

    Some genius figure out how to cut costs by reducing the inventory of root beer? Cutting costs is wonderful as long as it doesn’t affect the operation of critical business processes, in this case, providing root beer at a root beer stand. Problem is we often cut costs without looking at the processes behind them and the impact to the Customer. I’d guess this was the case at A&W. And who goes to Kentucky Fried Chicken for grilled chicken?

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  24. PaulD says:

    One word: Excellence.

    Starbucks employees know what it is all about. So do Chipotle employees. And See’s Candies, too — though it wouldn’t hurt some of those ladies to stop acting like up-tight librarians.

    KFC, on the other hand, is definitely clueless. They run out of chicken. They don’t say anything when you pull up to their drive-through speakers (which is hidden in a dark corner behind the restaurant). I think Christmas in Japan is the only thing keeping them solvent.

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  25. Aarthur12 says:

    I once ordered a dish with tofu at a Thai restaurant and was told they were out. I also thought that tofu seemed like an essential ingredient for their business.

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  26. Frederik says:

    A regular (not high end) restaurant running out of meat or anything quickly perishable I can understand – you do not want to reach 100% service levels. This would take quite a lot of inventory and you would have to throw a lot away. But root beer? This stuff should last at least for a couple of months so perishing is not a problem and I cannot imagine that too much money would be bound if they tried for a 99.9% service level.

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  27. B says:

    Me, at KFC drive-thru: “I’d like a 2-piece meal, crispy, white meat please.”
    KFC employee: “We’re out of chicken”
    Me: “Oh. Can’t you just make some more?”
    KFC: “Uhhhhhh what?”
    Me: “Ya know, more chicken. That’s what you do here, right? Make chicken?”
    KFC: “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… I’ll have to ask my manager.”
    Me: “Never mind. I think I’ll grab a pizza.”

    This has happened more than once. I finally gave up on KFC.

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  28. Brian says:

    A few months ago I was sitting beside my father in the hospital watching his life ebb away. He struggled to speak to me… perhaps he was going to tell me what a fine son I was, or impart some final bit of wisdom… but what he wanted was a root beer milkshake. I figured at 89 years of age and with 48 hours or so to live, the least I could do was get him this final treat. And if you want root beer, A&W is the place.

    When I finally located one, I walked in to order it but was told that they don’t do root beer milk shakes. Vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, but not root beer. I explained my mission to the manager, and he graciously agrred to make one from scratch. He was an older fellow, and he was somewhat embarrassed that the famous A&W brand no longer extended to milkshakes, but this was apparently a Head Office decision and they were far wiser than he or their customers. Nevertheless, because of his extra effort, my dad had his root beer milk shake. He passed away the next day, happy I’m sure.

    BTW, although it’s totally off topic, my father was in Canada. The bill for his 7 week hospital stay which included colon surgery and 5 weeks in ICU… $0.00.

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  29. Robin says:

    I used to work at an A&W, although it was not owned by Yum!. The root beer came in a bag and box, just like all the other soda. We did run out from time to time and it was entirely due to mismanaging of the inventory by the store manager.

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  30. Jason says:

    I frequently have gone to a Boston Market when they’ve been out of chicken. (I guess they prepared for this years ago by changing their name from Boston Chicken.)

    A related annoyance that all kinds of stores (including, again, Boston Market) seem to commit: not opening when their sign says they’re supposed to open (or closing early). Essentially, you are lying or breaking a promise to your best customers!

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  31. David says:

    I don’t understand how the A&W root beer from the store/restaurants are made in the same manner as every other soda (syrup, carbonation, water), but taste so much better. What I mean is when you get A&W from a A&W restaurant or old-school drive up, it tastes 100x better than anything you get in a can, bottle, or at any other restaurant serving root beer.

    What’s the secret?

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  32. Fred says:

    Oh man, #31 is so spot on. I do not care when you open. I do not care when you close. But I really do care that barring emergency, you are open when you claim you will be (esp. if you’re running some sort of chain). If you wish to close your lobby at 9:45 instead of 10, fine. Just change the sign, and be consistent about it.

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  33. Amy says:

    We went to an A&W once, and the tap was broken. They offered to make us a root beer float with Mug root beer. That was something I couldn’t understand.

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  34. Ray says:

    Pizza Hut once told me they were out of medium pizzas. They had larges, but not mediums.

    When I pressed for an explanation they told me that the dough comes from on high already cut and shaped and they had no medium-sized dough left.

    I went to a local place capable of making their own dough and any size pizza you could want.

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  35. Rupert says:

    I worked at an Olive Garden chain Italian restaurant in college, and the place ran out of pasta all the time. At least once a week, the manager sent me to the grocery store across the street to buy pasta, the cheap, store-brand kind. Customers never seemed to notice the difference. Of course, these same customers raved about the awesome salad dressing and would never believe me when I told them it was just Wish-Bone out of a bottle. Even when I explained that both the Olive Garden and Wish-Bone were, at the time, owned by General Mills, they wouldn’t believe it.

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  36. jimi says:

    Oddly enough, I went to a KFC once and they were out of chicken.

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  37. CL says:

    I went into a bank the other day to get change and they were out of $1 bills. Some genius bankers!!!

    Yes, it’s unfortunate that restaurants run out of food sometimes. However, it’s offensive that so many of the above responses assume stupidity on the part of the hard-working people in the food business. So many are quick to criticize others in businesses they know nothing about.

    Why was A&W out of root beer? Maybe the product ingredients weren’t shipped by ADM, their supplier. Maybe there was a recall of a contaminated ingredient. Maybe when they were buying sugar based on high futures prices a year ago, someone didn’t forecast an increase in business due to folks choosing more fast food during this recession . Maybe orders for supplies are being shorted by corporate because operating expenses are high right now and it doesn’t look good to investors when they read the annual report; sometimes conflicting goals, like quarterly profits get in the way of an organization’s mission. But it takes less mental energy to make snarky, sweeping negative assessments of others’ performance.

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  38. mike says:

    When my children were small, we would sometimes go to the nearest KFC on Sunday for some chicken, always arriving at just about noon on the dot. They never had chicken ready and, indeed, didn’t even have any in process, this in spite of the fact that there always was a crowd arriving at this particular time. Sometimes we waited, sometimes we just went to Taco Bell. I could never understand why they didn’t sort of expect demand to be high at noon on Sunday.

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  39. Belfast Brendy says:

    I once worked for the Royal Mail and everyone in my section was given the afternoon off because we’d run out of envelopes.

    Shortly thereafter I was working for the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s Department of Finance & Personnel. At one point, no mail was leaving the building and no stationery orders were coming in because there was no petty cash to pay for them, thus I was working for the Dept. of Finance when it ran out of money!

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  40. Huh? says:

    How about Waffle House?
    They have 3 kinds of Waffles.
    1. Regular Waffle.
    2. Blueberry Waffle
    3. Double Waffle.

    It’s the Waffle House for cryin’ out loud. That’s like IHOP having only one pancake…mmm pancakes….

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  41. Troy S. says:

    Has anyone estimated how much money the US Government makes annually in penny seigniorage?

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  42. kevin says:

    Pizza Hut is always out of their “natural crust” pizza. My guess is that it takes them longer. McDonalds (several shops) were always out of their McFlurries.

    I suspect that the staff simply doesn’t want to go through the effort, and most people will buy something else.

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  43. Dave says:

    The Arby’s in Chicago that used to run out of roast beef is now closed.

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  44. jay says:

    I once went to Mexican restaurant that was out of refried beans.

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  45. David says:

    #38: Sorry, but some things are just plain dumb. An A&W running out of root beer qualifies. I don’t know where in the chain of command the stupidity resides, but it’s there.

    If it wasn’t supplied, some idiot failed to order it. There was almost certainly not a recall on some ingredient for two different visits. If they miscalculated the demand for sugar or guessed wrong on the futures market, well, paying more for sugar still makes them more money than not selling root beer. If corporate thought it wouldn’t provide root beer for some reason involving quarterly reports and stockholders, then the stockholders had best sell, and invest in companies run by people with IQs above room temperature.

    You see, businesses like A&W make money by selling stuff to customers. This means they need customers, and they need stuff to sell them. People who want to be customers and can’t buy stuff when they want tend to stop being customers. Right now, there appears to be an economist who’s conditioned to thinking that there’s no point in stopping at a particular A&W for root beer.

    It really is that simple.

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  46. Jessica says:

    I once stopped off for chicken at a KFC/Pizza Hut and naturally (in relevance to this story) they were out of chicken. I accepted the young voice through the intercom to come to a window of giggling teens. Ah, no chicken at KFChicken?? I realized to myself, but, should I have argued w the box as to WHY KFChicken didn’t have my chicken? The result in choice was I like pizza just as much–actually, more, and here we have product self-illimination and the Momma’s Pizza’s and Popeye Chickens of the world.

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  47. Jennifer M. says:

    I find this hilarious because I had the same experience at a KFC a few years ago–I was told unapologetically that they were out of chicken! I wondered then why they would have their doors open if they were out of their marquee product. Are there that many people who just want to order some mashed potatoes and/or coleslaw??

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  48. Kedar says:

    Me thinks when you go to a bank, you will be told they are out of money. Or go to Fort Knox, they will be out of Gold, lol – oh wait

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  49. Jeff #3 says:

    I’ve worked at numerous restaurants/stores in my youth, so I’ll answer some of these that are popping up.

    #32 people tend to prefer fountain mixed drinks to pre-prepared for various reasons. Sometimes the syrup/water ratio is different, or it could be the temperature that it’s served at.

    #35 The deep dish crust arrives at the restaurant as a frozen disc much smaller then the pan. One of the tasks of an employee there (amount according to a computer report that takes into account previous sale numbers) will be two pump oil into the various pans, add in a dough disk, and stash them away in the cooler for use the following day. Overnight the dough expands to fill the pan and can be used. If a restaurant runs out of prepped pans, they can’t make more on the spot due to thaw time. Original/thin/new york style crust was made fresh daily and if it ran out more could be made.

    General KFC running out of chicken issues:

    Chicken arrived at the store frozen in large blue 40 pound containers seperated to 1 bird (called a head) per bag. This came in the twice weekly supply truck. Most of it is placed in the freezer, whereas the chicken expected to be used in the next 3 or so days is stashed in the walk in cooler to thaw. As long as it’s not frozen or expired it’s usable. KFC corporate has a poor history of informing it’s stores of upcoming promotions, so if your store was out of chicken the day following a large sale is entirely possible (example: the Oprah fiasco). Otherwise it takes 15 minutes to prepare a new batch of chicken, so there’s really no good excuse for them to be ‘out’ and turn you away. If they’re out first thing in the morning, it’s because of poor management. If they’re out in the evening it’s likely due to a slow night, and the held product expiring and none being cooked to replace it. That or the night staff is lazy (a common occurence) and has already cleaned the fryers and don’t want to do it again (preassure cookers take 20 minutes to clean/filter properly and maybe 5-10 minutes to reheat). If it is a busy day, it’s entirely possible that they’ve sold out due to demand and are still in the process of making more. In the event of actually ‘running out of chicken’ the store CAN remain open. People due by sides, and things like strips and patties aren’t part of the ‘chicken’ inventory and are often still around if original/crispy is missing.

    Supplies can run out due to problems up the chain though. When I worked at a Burger King, the bun supplier would occasionally (happened maybe 2-3 times in a year and a half span) have issues that would result in all stores serviced by that supplier being shorted buns. While the store never exactly ‘ran out’ of buns, it did get pretty close, and on some nights resulted in a manager calling up other stores trying to trade flats of one bun type for another (which does not work well when all stores in the area are having the same issue). Some things like a nationwide tomato shortage are out of control of the store and need to be dealt with as is (which customers never understand).

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  50. Tim Matis says:

    Steven,
    Running out of Root Beer is definitely not normal or acceptable. We’re looking into it and apologize for the inconvenience. We’d like to invite you back to enjoy an A&W Original Root Beer Float or two on us. Please shoot me an email and I’ll coordinate getting you a coupon.

    Best regards,
    Tim Matis
    A&W Restaurants
    tim.matis@yum.com

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  51. Michael says:

    Yes, the root beer in restaurant does taste much better than store bought. And so I don’t think it is a simple matter of just having a bottle of syrup around

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  52. Nick says:

    I have been at a Dunkin’ Donuts, in the middle of business hours, that did not have a single donut.

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  53. Bruce says:

    On KFC…my first job in 1973, age 14. I cleaned up for one day, and started cooking the next…and for many of my shifts was the only person working in the back, riding my bike home after closing at midnight or later. (I think for about $1.45 an hour.)

    Even then, I couldn’t believe they would try and run the place that way. (And I only lasted 5 weeks.)

    I didn’t eat at a KFC again until about 25 years later…and rarely since.

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  54. Paul R says:

    Attended the first run of the NASCAR Coke Zero 400 (previously the Pepsi 400, previously the Firecracker 400) a few years ago. We went to the Coke Zero tent pre-race, to find they had a about six Coke Zeros left. Not cases. Six cans. The bar’s allotment for the entire week was a single-digit number of cases. Up we go to the stands. Lovely Coke Zero logo painted on the grass, Coke Zero signs everywhere, announcer says Coke Zero 400 every 15 seconds or so. Guess what’s not available, before the race has even begun. Plenty of Diet Coke, though. Things have since improved, but man, that’s your *launch*?

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  55. Ron says:

    I once went into a JP Licks that had a sign on their front door advertising that purchases of 1 specific flavor of ice cream that weekend would go to a certain charity. The sign of flavors is hand-written and one employee was finishing the menu board as I went in. I went in a few minutes after they’d opened and ordered the flavor and was told they were all out. I looked at the board and saw it there. I wanted to ask why it had been written there if they weren’t offering it, but was too stunned and just walked out.

    I used to love getting the ICEEs at Burger King. Several times in one summer I left work and went straight there to get one since the temperature had been pushing upper 90s. Every time I went in I was told they’d run out in the machine and had just taken the mix out of the freezer. Until it defrosted they couldn’t refill the machine and that could take up to an hour. You have to admire a system like that.

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  56. Jake says:

    Ha. This happened to me in Wisconsin. They ran out of root beer! I hadn’t been to A&W for over 10 years, I probably won’t go back ever.

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  57. Glenn says:

    I went to a Dunkin Donuts on a Sunday morning and ordered four large coffees. The clerk acted as if i was making some outrageous request and hoped she had enough coffee. Luckily, her stupidity carried over to her ringing up abilities and she charged me something like two dollars. I was going to speak up but figured that I deserved a break for her ridiculous indignation for ordering coffee on a Sunday morning.

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  58. Roderick says:

    That’s like the bank being out of money!!!

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  59. Craig Rodgers says:

    If you are ever in Burlington, NJ and want a real root beer please stop at Stewart’s on Rt. 130. They don’t run out, and it’s fresh made every day.

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  60. Gaspar says:

    it simply shows how they care about us – the customers!

    Sadly but true :(

    http://squashlife.no

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  61. A&W says:

    I know this post is years old, but I’d like to explain why your local store was out of root beer. Their root beer is made fresh in each store. They were probably working on a batch when you stopped in. It isn’t made from a concentrate + carbonated water mix. This is also the reason their A&W root beer tastes different than the stuff you can buy on the store shelf. It is a different product.

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