Triple-X Root Beer Drive-In

98 NE Gilman Boulevard

Triple X Drive In

Triple X Drive In. (Photo by David Bangs, 1999)

The first drive-in restaurant in the Pacific Northwest was established in 1930 in Renton by A.H. Rutherford. The combination of Triple XXX Root Beer and food turned out to be a great idea which spread nationwide. Of all the XXXs that ever graced our country’s landscape, Issaquah’s is the only one left which sports the traditional barrel. Another Triple XXX still thrives in Lafayette, Indiana.

Issaquah’s original XXX Restaurant was located on Sunset Way near the location of Flintoft’s Funeral Home. That restaurant, which was known by locals as “The Barrel”, operated until the 1950’s when the location was needed for a car dealer’s parking lot.  Today’s XXX Root Beer Drive-In opened in 1968 at its current location.

The restaurant serves up 1950’s style hamburgers and dairy concoctions in large serving sizes, and is proud to host frequent gatherings of vintage automobile and motorcycle enthusiasts.

Now a family-owned business, the restaurant was purchased in March 1999 by José Enciso and his grown children. Originally from Mexico, Enciso has worked in restaurants since he was a young teenager.  He takes special pride in owning and improving such a visible Issaquah landmark and says, “XXX may not be the oldest historic building in Issaquah, but it’s probably the one which is most visited and enjoyed.”

Jose Enciso, Triple X Proprietor

Jose Enciso, Triple X Proprietor. (Photo by David Bangs, 1999).

And You Thought You Knew All About the Triple XXX
By David Miller & Sue Cameron  /  Past Times Autumn 2004
with Erica Maniez, Issaquah Historical Society Museum Director

Almost everyone in Issaquah is familiar with the Triple XXX on Gilman Boulevard near the intersection with Front Street. They know about its jaw-stretching monster burgers, icy mugs of root beer, and straw-bending shakes. They know about its 1950’s and 60’s pop music – provided by table-side mini-jukeboxes – and its cherry-red and creamy white booths. They’ve witnessed the army of gleaming “Rod-tiques” parked outside on weekend Summer nights.

But do they know that:

▪ The Issaquah Triple XXX is one of only two Triple XXX drive-ins still operating anywhere (the other is in West Lafayette, Indiana)?

▪ The barrel sign above the Triple XXX is the largest lighted Plexiglas sign in the West?

▪ CNN recently filmed the Triple XXX for a TV special on the Top 10 Most Fun and Entertaining 1950’s diners in America? (It’s true, although it’s not yet known when the spot will show.)

Triple XXX Root Beer was chosen the 4th-best root beer in the nation by Luke’s Root Beer Reviews, as publicized in a national magazine?

Even more important, do they know that the history of the Triple XXX Root Beer began well over a century ago?

According to the Triple XXX Family Restaurant website at  www.triplexxxfamilyrestaurant.com, “in 1895, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association of St. Louis, together with local investors, established the Galveston (Texas) Brewing Company… The brewery had an annual production capacity of 100,000 barrels of beer which it sold locally under the name ‘Hi Grade.’ Interestingly, its keg beer was packaged in steel-banded barrels of oak which were marked with the ‘XXX.’”

The Triple X, circa 1940s

Linda Goben and her doll are pictured in front of the Issaquah’s original XXX Restaurant, which was constructed in the 30s or 40s on East Mill Street (now Sunset Way) near Flintoft’s Funeral Home. (Photo courtesy of Linda Goben).

Sometime between 1900 and 1908, the Galveston Brewing Company began to produce and sell a line of soft-drink syrups under the brand name “XXX.” In 1918, with the advent of Prohibition, the company changed its name to Southern Beverage Company and converted its brewing equipment to producing only soft drinks, primarily ginger ale and root beer. By 1923, Southern Beverage Company’s licensed distributors included about 150 Triple XXX bottlers and approximately 100 Triple XXX “thirst stations” throughout the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Northwest as far as British Columbia.

Leave it to an enterprising Washingtonian – a local, actually – to add food to drink. In 1930 Archie Rutherford opened the first Triple XXX Root Beer restaurant in nearby Renton. Along with his sons Joel and Jerry, Archie traded on his initial success by opening a chain of restaurants throughout the Pacific Northwest during the late 1930s and early 40s.

During this period, Dave Morgan opened Issaquah’s first Triple XXX on East Mill Street (now Sunset Way). June Day Sandberg remembers: “Before the war we always went to Dave Morgan’s Little Barrel way up Sunset close to Flintoft’s. Depression time – if we’d bring our own bananas he’d make us splits! We loved it as kids.”

The Triple XXX was closed during World War II, but reopened in 1945.

“I worked at the first XXX on Sunset next door to Stonebridge Chevrolet,” recalls Phyllis “Fifi” Krumbah Laughlin. “It was a great place because everyone came by for something! Burger, cokes, root beer, or fries. Drive-ins were starting up and the owner wanted me to work outside. When someone drove into the lot, I was supposed to run outside and ask if they wanted to eat in their car. The trouble was the windows were so small it was hard to see people drive up.”

During the late 1950s business declined. Ted Stonebridge, owner of Stonebridge Chevrolet, bought the Triple XXX and demolished it to build a car lot.

Fast forward to 1968, when today’s Gilman Boulevard was still Highway 10, the primary route from Seattle to eastern Washington over Snoqualmie Pass. In that year, Jay Noel built the present Triple XXX on that route for its first owners, Dick Gilbert and John Wirtz.

In 1983 Norm Lipkin bought the Triple XXX from Dick Kadyk, the second owner. In 1996 he added a soda fountain counter and brought back the old menu of the Triple XXX chain. To make ends meet, he abolished the outside stalls where customers could drive up and order from carhops, and converted the space into an office building. Norm had already begun the practice of inviting vintage car owners to show the results of their restoration skills in the Triple XXX lot.

The restaurant hasn’t changed much since then, save for the addition of a lot of ‘50s and ‘60s memorabilia such as old radios, soft-drink bottles, license plates, posters of rock-‘n-rollers and movie stars – by José Enciso, who began leasing the Triple XXX from Norm in 1999. José and family members, along with other employees, deliver a friendly and informal hospitality reminiscent of the drive-in days at their peak in the 1950s.

The company behind the root beer has suffered a lot of changes. First the Galveston Brewing Company experienced a series of sales and name changes, eventually becoming the Triple XXX Corporation. Then in 1960, after the Food and Drug Administration ruled that sassafras (oil of saffron) was a suspected carcinogen, the Triple XXX Corporation scrambled to find a substitute with the flavor and foamy head characteristic of draft root beer, which the company was eventually able to do. Consolidation in the soft drink industry cut off many of the Triple XXX’s traditional direct-store delivery channels, and in 1985 production of bottled and canned Triple XXX Root Beer was suspended.

Today José gets his Triple XXX* syrup from the Coca-Cola Company which is honoring a contract made when Triple XXX drive-ins graced many a small town. Sadly, most Triple XXX restaurants eventually gave way to the onslaught of fast-food outlets.

There you have it – a brief tour of the history behind Issaquah’s own Triple XXX restaurant – long recognized as a community landmark. All that’s left to make your trip back in time complete is to drive over to 98 N.E. Gilman Boulevard, say hello to José, and indulge yourself in old-style root beer, golden oldies and memories of days gone by.

* 12/3/2008: To clarify, the Triple XXX here in Issaquah buys its root beer syrup from Coca-Cola. The Triple XXX Family Restaurant in Lafayette, IN is unique in that it uses the original Triple XXX syrup, and owns the trademark to the Triple XXX name as well.

Other XXX Restaurants
One other XXX restaurant is known to exist In Lafayette, Indiana.  This restaurant shares a common history with Issaquah’s, but is no longer affiliated in any way.

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