American restaurant executive Alice Sheets Marriott (1907–2000) helped her husband build a chain of successful eateries and hotels that became Marriott International. When she died at the age of 92, the company was still in family hands and posted sales that neared the $10-billion mark.
"Almost from the start, my parents—especially my father—launched the process of figuring out how to do something right and then writing it down," Marriott's son J. W. Jr. wrote in his autobiography, The Spirit to Serve: Marriott's Way, according to New York Times writer Alex Berenson. "From washing windows to burnishing silverware to arranging buffet tables and processing customers' checks, no aspect of the workplace went untouched."
Born on October 19, 1907, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Marriott was the daughter of an attorney, Edwin Spencer Sheets, who died when she was 12 years old during the 1918–19 Spanish flu epidemic. She was named after her mother, Alice Taylor Sheets, who encouraged her daughter to do well in school and follow the tenets of their faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. Marriott entered college at the age of 16, studying Spanish at the University of Utah, and met John Willard "Bill" Marriott there during her junior year. Her future husband came from a farm near Ogden, Utah, and was seven years her senior. Bill Marriott also had a proven success record with entrepreneurial ventures all the way back to his early teens, when his father let him plant some lettuce on an unused patch of their land and the 13-year-old turned over $2,000 in profit at the end of the season. He later took the family's sheep to San Francisco, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, and handled the sales on the livestock markets in each city.
Married and Moved East
Bill Marriott was also a Mormon, and completed the two years of missionary service that the church asked its young men to give. One of his fellow proselytizers in New England was Hugh Colton. After their missionary stint ended, they went into business together with a stock of woolen goods they sold at lumber camps in the Pacific Northwest. Bill entered the University of Utah to complete an education already started at a junior college. When he began dating honor student Alice Sheets—known as "Allie"—they liked to spend time together drinking root beer floats at the A&W soda fountain near campus. The soft drink brand had been founded in 1919 by Roy Allen (died 1968) in Lodi, California, and opened its first restaurants three years later. In 1924 Allen began franchising the concept.
Marriott's husband graduated from the University of Utah a year ahead of her, in 1926, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit Colton, then a law student at Georgetown University. The climate was a mild one, with sweltering summers, and he thought an A&W eatery might do well there with its ice cream float specialty. He returned to Utah, contacted Roy Allen with his idea, and won the franchise for A&W in the District of Columbia, along with the cities of Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia. He and Colton opened their first venture, at 3128 14th Street N.W., on May 20, 1927. Then Bill returned to Salt Lake City and married Allie on June 9, 1927, two days after her graduation ceremony.
The couple headed to Washington in a Model T Ford, a drive that took several days and was made on simple two-lane roads in an era before the U.S. interstate highway system existed. Bill and Colton opened a second stand, and though Marriott had not planned on joining the enterprise, she found herself the bookkeeper at the end of the day. Because the floats sold for a nickel each, that denomination was the bulk of the cash receipts. "We joked around that Mom had the sticky-nickel job," her son J. W. Jr. told Richard Papiernik in Nation's Restaurant News decades later. "That syrup would somehow always wind up on the coins. And there she would be, with $50 in nickels sticking together, trying to clean them up to get to the bank."
Introduced Mexican Cuisine
Marriott also possessed a gift for sensing new business opportunities. When sales dropped as the cooler weather arrived, she used her fluent Spanish to ask the chef of the nearby Mexican Embassy about traditional Mexican cuisine. He provided her with recipes for chili con carne and tamales, and she tried them out at home, perfecting the dishes over a two-day period. The A&W stands put the items on the menu, which proved such a hit that they renamed their business "The Hot Shoppe" once the franchise agreement ended. In 1928 the Marriotts opened the first drive-in restaurant east of the Mississippi River. As their company expanded rapidly over the next few years, Marriott would often sit with her husband for hours in a parked car, counting the passing cars to ensure the piece of land they were thinking of buying could bring in enough customers.
By 1932 there were seven Hot Shoppes, and Marriott often went along with her husband on his daily rounds. "I used to go with him, sit in the car at night, and wait for him. I would be out on the walk and would watch the curb service to see what they were doing," she recalled, according to the Marriott Company website. That same year, their first son, John Willard "J. W." Jr., was born, followed seven years later by a second, Richard Edwin. By then there were 65 Hot Shoppes across several states. At this point, Marriott began devoting more time to her family and home, and less to helping her husband in the business on a daily basis, but she remained an influential voice as the company continued to expand.
In the late 1930s the Marriotts began providing meals to airline passengers, thanks to an arrangement with the company that later became Eastern Airlines; her husband, who had noticed that travelers were picking up box lunches at his Hot Shoppe near the Washington, D.C., airport at the time, called Hoover Field—later the site on which the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters known as the Pentagon was built—and struck a deal with Eastern for pre-prepared inflight meals. Over the next several decades, that venture would grow into Caterair International, a flight kitchen division that was the largest of its kind when it was sold off in 1989. During World War II the company entered the food service management sector with contracts to run cafeterias and lunch wagons for U.S. government office workers.
Hung First Hotel's Art
The Marriott company became a publicly traded firm in 1953, and four years later entered the hotel business when it opened the 365-room Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Marriott reportedly spent the final 48 hours of preparation hanging all of the art work in the rooms. Over the next decade, urged by their son J. W. Jr., the hotel division expanded to meet the demand for lodging spurred by the new interstate highway system. The family continued to build their restaurant division, opening or acquiring several chains, among them Roy Rogers, Sirloin and Saddles, the Kona Kai Hawaiian-themed restaurants, and Bob's Big Boy. The Marriott empire grew to include a lucrative airport concession stand division, and Fairfield Inns, its lower-priced hotel chain.
Marriott served as a vice president and director of the Marriott Corporation, as the family business became known. She and her husband were active in Republican Party politics, and she served as vice chair of the 1969 presidential inaugural committee for newly elected Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994). She held the same title on the Republican National Committee, and was treasurer of the Republican National Conventions of 1964, 1968, and 1972. She was also active in Mormon groups in the Washington area, joined cultural activities such as the Washington Ballet Guild, and served for two decades on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Her generosity to her and her husband's alma mater took the form of the Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance at the University of Utah, dedicated in 1989. She was also active in the National Commission on Child Abuse and sat on the advisory council of the National Institutes of Health Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases agency. Widowed in 1985, she died at the age of 92 in Washington on April 17, 2000. Her legacy, aside from the crucial early work she provided to her husband in the early years of his venture, also included eight grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981–1985, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
Hotel & Motel Management, May 15, 2000.
Nation's Restaurant News, February 1996; May 1, 2000.
New York Times, April 20, 2000.
"Alice Sheets Marriott," Marriott Culture/Company Heritage, http://www.marriott.com/corporateinfo/culture/heritageAliceSMarriott.mi (December 11, 2006).