Skip to main content
rob magazine

But even she – 18 months into the job - doesn’t pretend to have seen the success of the Beyond Meat burger exactly as it played out

Lucy Lu/The Globe and Mail

As no one will have missed, A&W Food Services of Canada released its Beyond Meat burger in October 2018, the first plant-based burger in North America from a fast food chain. The patty came from an LA-based company of the same name, but the branding was all from the Canadian firm. The release was so successful that A&W ran out of patties and had to suspend sales for a month before relaunching the product. Since then, they haven’t looked back. Today, it’s no stretch to say that the company has had more press coverage of its Beyond Meat product (now also available on breakfast sandwiches) than it has received for anything else it ever sold in the 60 odd years since it was founded.

Susan Senecal is 18 months into her role as A&W’s CEO, but a company veteran, starting as an area manager in 1992 and doing stints as both chief marketing officer and chief operating officer. But even she doesn’t pretend to have seen this all coming exactly as it played out. Visiting her in the A&W headquarters in North Vancouver, she laughs when asks if she might have been a bit surprised. “Well yes,” she says. “It was certainly surprising.”

But as with all things in the A&W world under Senecal’s leadership, that’s not because it was an accident either. A&W had done their market research. They knew their customers. They’d spent the better part of three years sampling plant-based products at the A&W Innovation Centre. When they tasted Beyond Meat, Senecal says, they knew immediately the search was over. And they were pretty sure they knew which of their guests would try the new product.

“What surprised us,” she says, “is how quickly those guests came back for seconds, with friends, introducing new people to the product.”

It’s a typical moment in a conversation with Senecal when you realize that while a great deal has happened at A&W under her leadership as the result of the shrewdest planning, there’s another quality baked into the brand that lends to its success: a readiness on the part of consumers to quickly and warmly embrace its efforts. As with the arrival of the new product, guests feel they’ve been given exactly what they were requesting.

Senecal certainly seems to operate the company this way. In her personal interactions there is a quiet intensity to the way she listens to a question, as if to be absolutely sure that her answer will be useful. But a visitor to the A&W headquarters couldn’t also help but notice the “Guest Connect Screen” that live tabulates the daily results from survey kiosks in hundreds of stores, where customers award a smiley or a frowny face to four metrics: speed, cleanliness, service and food. No employee or visitor walks through that space without knowing how the company is doing that day in meeting guest expectations.

This attentiveness to consumers has a nice synergy with A&W’s homey background in Canada. As our very first fast food chain—or as they say in the trade: quick service restaurant, or QSR—A&W had more than 300 drive-in restaurants across the country in the sixties. The effect, Senecal notes, is that when older people today talk about those early visits, they might remember the teen burger and the onion rings they ordered. “But the first thing they remember,” Senecal stresses, “is being with mom and dad and eating in the back of the car.”

If that’s the warm and spontaneous part of the A&W personality—surely given no better emblem than the self-effacing, bumbling mascot Rooty the Root Bear—Senecal is quick in conversation to note that there is a disciplined, even steely side to that character. Because at A&W, it really all does come back to strategy.

“Strategy for us is a blank piece of paper,” she says. “We don’t make strategy by looking at what we do and how we could improve it. We look at real challenges and opportunities in the world and ask ourselves what we have to take advantage of them.”

In looking for challenges, it’s hard to imagine a more existential one than the one Senecal focuses on, nothing less than a shift in the cultural and social realities around them.

“We’re in a time of rapid change in the world and in life,” Senecal says.

Part of what she identified as a challenge is demographic. “[The company was] born in 1956, we are baby boomers” she says, referring to the original A&W drive-thru in Canada which opened in Winnipeg. But while that relationship has sustained the brand now for decades, new generations have taken leadership in our society, and their demands are quite different. As boomers aged, they’ve accumulated money and made QSR value less of a draw. As they approach retirement, meanwhile, the speed and convenience of fast food has somewhat diminished.

“Who we were seeing a lot in our restaurants though,” Senecal says, “were those time-crunched millennials, with jobs and kids, maybe looking after their boomer parents.”

But Senecal also began to realize that these were time-crunched millennials who didn’t just want fast and cheap. They wanted environmental awareness and they wanted social responsibility. In Senecal’s strategic view, that was really the biggest challenge faced by the brand, as well as its greatest opportunity. Here was a demographic cluster bringing kids of their own out for meals, who could themselves become the bedrock of a generational shift for the brand. But as a keen listener, Senecal was also hearing that A&W, and most other QSR brands were not giving these potential new buyers exactly what they wanted.

“Millennials have this increased interest in food,” she says. “How it’s raised. What’s in it. They watch cooking shows. They know celebrity chefs. This idea of ingredients was starting to be at the forefront. But they also want to feel that they’ve made a positive impact on the world through the way they’ve spent their money.”

Senecal remembers the first discussion of this new dynamic taking place at a strategic planning session in 2012. “And yes, there was a blank sheet of paper involved,” she observes wryly.

What began to go down on that piece of paper were the elements of an across-the-table strategy that has transformed A&W’s menu offerings in key ways, illustrating Senecal’s leadership ethic and her dedication to listening to what this newer generation of guests really wanted. Hormone- and steroid-free beef came first in September 2013. Antibiotic-free chicken and pork followed. Then eggs from hens with vegetarian feed. Fair trade coffee. No more processed cheese or plastic drinking straws, the last 140,000 of which became an art installation out front of Union Station in Toronto, a sculpture in words reading “Change is Good.”

“These were big challenges from a supply side,” Senecal acknowledges, in reference to the menu changes. Producers had to be convinced. But with reassurances that the market was there for them, they did come around. “And it’s opened other doors for them,” she says. “Which makes us happy.”

If there was a crowning event in this guest-focused surge of innovations, it would be the launch of the plant-based burger from Beyond Meat in 2018, after years of tasting. “We didn’t want a product people would settle for,” Senecal says. “We wanted a product they would choose.”

They found that product in 2017. The first time they heard the burger sizzle, the first time they saw the patty change colour with browning, smelled the meat-like aroma and then sampled the burger itself, they were convinced. And if the transformations prior had been in small increments, there appears to have been a sea change with the introduction of the plant-based product.

“Small differences make big differences,” says marketing professor David Soberman of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Maybe other QSR players have plant-based products by now. But by being first, A&W made a big difference. “They were the first one that people tried,” he says. “And that allowed them in on the circle of restaurants that those first tasters will choose going forward.”

If these menu innovations had millennials in mind, Senecal knew that there was a parallel change that A&W needed to make in order to accelerate the positive effects. They needed millennial franchisees. “We’d started to notice that by the time people had raised the equity necessary to invest, they were no longer the same demographic as the guests.”

So was born the Urban Franchisee Program, which reduced the equity investment required from a millennial-aged candidate, and combined that with an instore paid internship of up to 18 months. What made sense to the strategist in Senecal translated smoothly into A&W brand language.

“It’s gone very, very well,” Senecal says. “And we did this with the co-operation of existing franchisees who provide the training. They love having a smart, motivated person who is opening up their own restaurant, looking at things differently. We’ve had huge success in terms of their performance. So it’s been a real win.”

Same-store sales growth was up almost 10% in 2018 and is ahead of that pace year-to-date in 2019. There have been 35 net openings in the past year. And if you ask customers, it appears that all of the listening Senecal and her team have done is being noticed. Technomic, a food service research and consulting company based in Chicago, tracks these sorts of things using a brand health-tracking program called Ignite. The program is run by senior manager Robert Byrne, a longtime follower and admirer of A&W. Like a super-sized version of A&W’s own Guest Connect Screen, the Ignite program tracks guest experience metrics across 23 QSR brands in Canada including segments such as burgers, sandwiches and pizza. Byrne has been tracking A&W since 2012, he tells me. And some of their numbers are highly notable.

The first statistic Byrne shares measures the degree to which guests agree or strongly agree that a given QSR brand is “socially responsible and good for the environment.” According to Technomic data, the average Canadian QSR brand receives 53% by this measure, meaning almost half of the responding guests are buying a product they do not feel has these attributes. A&W is a striking category leader in this regard, at 70%.

The second statistic speaks even more clearly to the degree to which Senecal and her team have made strategic menu changes that are noticed and appreciated. In this case, guests are asked to grade a QSR brand by the job they’re doing serving “natural, organic, sustainable, and responsibly sourced ingredients.” No question really cuts more to the generational shift that A&W has been trying to address in 2012. And while the QSR brand average is 65% “good or very good,” A&W’s score of 81% indicates that guests consider the brand less like its conventional burger chain peers, and more like Subway (at 82%) or even Booster Juice (at 89%).

“If you’re competing with people who are serving fresh sandwiches, smoothies and juice,” Byrne says, “that’s impressive.”

Looking to the future, it’s not immediately obviously how much further A&W can push its menu in the direction of health, environmental and social responsibility. But Byrne doesn’t think the wave has crested, either. Sure, these are the kinds of changes that catch the interest of millennials. But boomers aren’t getting any younger and will care more and more about health matters as they age. And the real key, Byrne thinks, is that these changes are positioning A&W and others who follow suit for generations that follow both of these.

“When you talk about sustainability, corporate social responsibility, transparency, animal welfare,” he says, “these are really the topics that are important to Generation Z. These will only get more important for these younger users. And A&W is responsible for building a lifetime relationship. They’re going to have to meet them where they are.”

Susan Senecal herself, meanwhile, thinks of the future in this framework as a matter of a partnership and trust. There will be continued innovation, she stresses. But the biggest role for A&W to play will be in matters of sustainability.

“Our guests are looking to us to help us make big changes,” she says. “As individuals, we sometimes feel like: what can I do? These are big problems. But I believe a partnership between great brands and their guests can serve to make that difference. And for that, we need to develop a relationship of trust.”

One of Byrne’s Ignite statistics speaks optimistically to this possibility.

“This is a restaurant I can trust,” reads the statement. “Agree or strongly agree?” The QSR brand average in Canada is 69%. A&W is at 79%.

“Ten points above the average,” Byrne says. “That’s a trustworthy brand.”

Senecal might not be surprised to hear this figure. Strategy starts with a blank sheet of paper at A&W, but the process Senecal and her team follow means filling that page in by watching the Guest Connect Screen and by listening to what guests say they want.

“That focus,” she says, “has served us in good stead for over 40 years.”