A&W has claimed half of Waiters Race titles, including its current owner

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By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Watching waiters balance trays as they scoot across pavement might be an unusual site for most restaurants, but not at A&W. The restaurant chain of root beer fame was one of the first fast food restaurants that was made popular as a drive-up spot in the cruising 1950s. Waitresses shuttling trays of food from the kitchen to cars was a common site at that time and it seems as if that history may help the company’s modern servers carry on a local tradition.

Tomorrow night, waiters from many of your favorite local restaurants will compete in the 24th annual Waiters Race, and none of them have a better track record of winning the race than local A&W restaurants. A&W waiters from restaurants in Visalia and Exeter have won half of the Waiters Races overall. The next closest winner is Las Palmas with five. Craig Van Horn, owner of A&Ws in Visalia, Exeter, Hanford and Tulare, is a former competitor and winner himself. Van Horn won the competition in 1992.

“It was a much longer race than I had anticipated and I was dying by the end,” Van Horn recalled.

The event began across the street from A&W’s Willis Street location in 1985 when Bob Cary, former owner of A&W restaurants in Kings and Tulare Counties, met with John Vartanian, owner of the Vintage Press, to bring an event that John had seen in France and larger cities to downtown Visalia.

“I would say the fine dining people have more of an advantage because they carry trays on one hand,” Van Horn said. “Our waiters use two hands to carry trays.”

It was a popular event for a decade before the Waiter’s Race died in 1994. It was resurrected by Arts Visalia in 2007. Director Mary Jo Eastes was the driving force behind the new version of the event. In fact, she was such an integral part of the event that she had to become a member of the Visalia Breakfast Lions Club when they took over the event three years ago so that she could continue to run it.  As a 28-year member of the Breakfast Lions Club, Van Horn was among the first to sign up for the committee to continue the race in 2014.

Van Horn is hoping to continue A&W’s winning ways in the event tomorrow night, Sept. 21 when three of his employees from Visalia and Exeter will enter the 24th annual Waiters Race. Amanda Mattox will be running for A&W’s Exeter location, Brandon Kenner for the Mooney Boulevard site and Nick Romero will be representing A&W’s Willis location, where Van Horn’s father helped start the race more than 30 years ago.

“The best advice I can give them is to have their own pace and run through the finish line, don’t let up until your passed it,” Van Horn said.

Eastes says waiters interested in running in the race can still enter today and tomorrow on race day. Registration is $35. Day of registration and check in for racers is between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 in front of the Enchanted Playhouse Theater. Racers will compete in two categories, full service, such as fine dining establishments, and quick service, for fast food, diners and cafes in both men’s and women’s divisions. In the Quick Service division, racers will be equipped with a tray containing two paper cups of soda and a bun in a clam shell. The first to finish with all items on the tray wins that division. In the Full Service division, racers will be outfitted with a tray set up with two wine glasses and one glass bottle of wine. Again, the racer with all items on their tray wins.

“There will be broken glass and hopes crashed,” the web site reads.

Racers will make a quarter mile loop on Main Street from Garden Street to Court Street and back again. Eastes said the event has steadily grown and they are expecting around 100 entrants to the race. The race is an enticing option for servers who can win $1,000 for first place, $500 for second and $250 for third place. Overall, $7,000 in prizes will be awarded.

“Most of the entry fees go toward paying out the prizes but these people have to take a night off to compete so you have to make it worth their while,” Eastes said.

The event will begin with a Parade of Racers at 5:15 p.m. followed by the National Anthem. The first race will being promptly at 5:35 p.m. The event is free for the public but get a spot early as close to 1,000 people are expected to be in attendance.

“This is a great family-friendly event where local people compete for prizes in a unique contest,” Eastes said.

For more information, contact Mary Jo Eastes at 559-730-1808 or register online at visaliabreakfastlions.org.

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