The color scheme, both inside and out, has returned to the company’s traditional orange and brown, replacing the teal and pastels that were widely implemented in the late 1980s.
The chain has also sought to increase the branding presence of menu items, such as the burger family and Chubby Chicken, both of which were relaunched a couple of years ago after lengthy absences, by erecting their emblems on the outside of the repainted buildings.
On the inside, the renovations include a “memory wall” of pictures from the ’50s and ’60s and a root beer keg look to its drink dispensers.
"For a lot of people who grew up in small and large towns in Canada, the special occasion of going out for a treat, having a family dinner, hanging out with friends or celebrating after the high school football game, that all happened in the A&W parking lot," says Don Maunders, vice-president of marketing for the Vancouver-based company.
"They remember hanging out at 'the Dub,' the carhops and the food. Whatever we do in our marketing, we hold up some icon of that era and it’s like a little memory door for our customers," he continued.
Maunders says approximately 70 percent of its locations, both freestanding and those in malls and other co-locations, have been "re-imaged" and he expects 90 percent of them to have had a complete makeover by the end of 2005.
A&W Food Services of Canada, which opens an average of 30 new stores each year, got its start in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1956. Maunders says it became a separate entity from the US company in the early ’70s and is now the second biggest restaurant chain in Canada after McDonald’s in terms of locations. (The A&W initials stand for the company's founders, Roy Allen and Frank Wright, who created A&W root beer and first offered it for sale in Lodi, California, in 1919.)
Maunders says another significant part of the appeal of A&W to babyboomers is it hasn’t changed the way it makes or presents its food in nearly a half-century. Burgers are still served in foil so they don’t get cold, root beer still comes in a frosted mug (the take-out version doesn’t have ice because it dilutes the taste, Maunders says) and onion rings are all cut, ringed, breaded and fried on-site.
Just last month, the company added A&W Root Beer Floats made with hard ice cream to its menu, more than a decade after deleting it.
To give the brand an even stronger pulse, A&W has brought back "Cruisin' the Dub" — evenings where classic car clubs host events on A&W parking lots and staff dress up in carhop uniforms and bring food out on trays. Sometimes a band accompanies the event by belting out rock 'n’ roll classics. Pictures from events from across the country are posted on a its website, www.aw.ca
"It's a fun way to invite people back to experience it again, to celebrate those great cars. It's another way to go back and revisit their memories," Maunders says.
One memory A&W likely won’t be bringing back to life, however, says Maunders, is the carhop service. The last remnants of the 300 drive-in locations were phased out several years ago and Maunders says while customers are very fond of their memories, they still want their food in a timely manner.
“Nostalgia is an interesting way to capture what we do but our winning formula is great food, competitive speed of service and great memories. If we were to go back to the drive-ins, it wouldn’t be as competitive in meeting the needs of our customers,” he says.
“We like to say a chain of 300 restaurants closed and a new chain of more than 600 restaurants has opened in its place.”
Maunders says the company has seen a steady increase in growth with each step of A&W’s transformation, ranging from high single-digits to low double-digits.
But he says A&W executives realize babyboomers can't be the market forever. As a result, he says the company has two "ladders to the future" to ensure it doesn't run into trouble when its biggest demographic retires to the big drive-in in the sky.
"One is people who appreciate our unique offer and bring their kids to A&W.
explains Maunders. “Their kids are starting to become more discriminating about what they eat — it's not just about the toy, it's about the quality of the food. We're well positioned when kids get to that age.”
The second ladder is crystallizing the brand to stand for a real food service icon.
"Brands are basically personalities. The essence of trying to convey a brand is trying to convey a personality. Usually, we're drawn to strong brands and strong personalities. Brands that are compelling reach out to everybody and sharp brands command more attention and profile. We're really trying to go through the pieces of the brand and make sure they align," he says.