The unusual hamburger patties arrived at A&W Canada headquarters packed in dry ice, just before Christmas 2017. In the kitchen that dominates the centre of the North Vancouver office, A&W’s chief executive Susan Senecal and her team watched as a colleague cooked a patty and cut it into little triangles.
For almost a decade, Senecal had been part of A&W’s search for a new veggie burger — one people would want, “not the one they’d settle for.” The patty her executive team was eager to try was from Beyond Meat, the California producer with celebrity investors. Senecal took a piece.
“This is it,” Senecal recalled saying. “We kind of decided then and there.”
Senecal, who has spent 26 years with the company, has been involved in nearly every right decision A&W has made in the past decade, transforming a chain of drive-in restaurants popular with nostalgic baby boomers to a progressive, aggressively expanding empire with nearly 1,000 locations, second only to McDonald’s in the Canadian hamburger trade.
In less than year in her new role as CEO, Senecal has banished plastic straws and processed cheese and ushered in the Beyond Meat burger — a project that, at roughly six months, was the fastest A&W has ever developed a burger offering.
“They’ve slowly crept up the Top 5 list,” said Robert Carter, an industry advisor specializing in food service for NPD group. “It’s so crazy.”
“They just keep doing things that are on trend.”
In 2012, Senecal was appointed A&W’s chief marketing officer as the chain attempted to pivot from baby boomers toward a younger audience.
“I really didn’t have a marketing background,” said Senecal, a McGill biology graduate who chose food service over the solitude of a laboratory. But she and her team noticed that young people seemed to have a renewed interest in food. Within a year, A&W launched a beef program touting no hormones or steroids — a move that transformed its image, Carter at NPD said.
The chain also wanted to lure younger franchisees after Senecal noticed that older franchisees who brought their children into the business produced the best ideas (including a suggestion to keep downtown locations open 24 hours to cater to crowds after last call).
“We thought, ‘How do we get more of those?’” Senecal said. “We can’t go to a franchisee and say, ‘Have more children!’”
Instead, A&W developed a program to recruit millennials, train them and give them urban franchises through financing, requiring only a fraction of the total cost up front.
(We wanted) a new veggie burger — one people would want, not the one they’d settle for.
A&W Canada CEO Susan Senecal
Senecal said the chain has added 37 to 45 locations annually in recent years, a figure A&W is likely to hit again this year. In its third-quarter results last fall, the company reported same store sales growth of 13 per cent.
But Senecal is reluctant to take credit for the success. Confronted with the fact that she has been a part of almost all of A&W’s recent notable moves, she points to the office, with around 100 staff, tight enough that everyone is part of everything.
“We’re a small team.”
Now, the CEO is bent on hyping the chain’s breakfast offering, even though the chain is far better known for its burgers.
Part of the plan, she said, is to increase advertising efforts around breakfast while tweaking the menu.
“I think breakfast’s time has come,” she said, adding that other changes in 2019 will include new Beyond Meat recipes.
“As with a lot of our other burgers, sometimes it’s nice to add a bit of spice, sometimes it’s nice to add something different.”