Youth Movement: A&W CEO Susan Senecal is ushering a classic Boomer brand into the modern era

By Gregory Furgala

If you live in a major city in Canada, you might’ve noticed that, a few years ago, new A&W restaurants started popping up downtown. They looked polished. Tall refrigerators chilled and displayed A&W’s iconic glass root beer mug; messaging on the walls spoke to A&W Canada’s new ingredients guarantee, which promised hormone and steroid-free beef and antibiotic-free chicken; and trays holding a couple dozen tomatoes, each carefully nestled, were tilted forward and in full view of you, the customer, as you examined the menu. It made for a persuasive argument.

The restaurants were popping up in the suburbs, too, but they looked a bit different there, trafficking in more A&W nostalgia than their downtown counterparts. But wherever you lived, there were likely more A&Ws. Since 2012, A&W Canada has added 169 stores, a success-begetting-success expansion prompted by the simple logic of convenience — more stores makes A&W a closer option for more people. It was part of a new strategic direction, but that was the easiest part of the answer to the more difficult question posed by A&W Canada’s CEO, Susan Senecal: “How do we continue to improve and connect [with customers] more strongly?”

“I was smitten. I caught the bug.”

A&W Canada, founded in 1956, is of an age with Boomers, whose behaviour precipitated shifts from drive-ins to freestanding restaurants to malls. But Boomers now represent a demographic with diminishing market share, and it’s no secret that foodservice operators are reckoning with the wants, needs and expectations of Millennials and Gen Z as a result. That focus has generated some industry truisms: younger generations focus on the ingredients and their provenance, and they place more importance on environmental and ethical issues than their parents did. Senecal and the rest of A&W Canada’s management team know this full well, so the question isn’t really Millennials want, but about how to adapt a legacy brand with an established set of values to a new set of consumers.

“It’s really about finding the next innovations and changes we want to make, as well as the core and traditions we want to uphold,” says Senecal. “Whether it’s TV shows, magazines, fine dining or open kitchens, how does A&W fit into that open world?”

Even though Senecal’s asking the questions, few people are better positioned to answer them for A&W than her. Senecal grew up on the south shore of Montreal where she went to school and, in 1992, became an area manager for A&W overseeing about a dozen corporate restaurants there, all in shopping malls. The position, in some ways, didn’t make sense — Senecal studied genetics and graduated with a degree in biology. But in 1985, while still in school, she worked as a manager-trainee at a Burger King and found she loved the pace and people, and that she enjoyed business generally. “I didn’t necessarily think it would become a permanent job, but I very quickly fell in love with the business.” says Senecal. “I was smitten. I caught the bug.”

The bug drew her into foodservice, but A&W kept her in orange for nearly 30 years, rising through the ranks into the c-suite. In 2012, when management decided to aggressively expand and reorient its growth strategy around Millennials, Senecal was the chief marketing officer. Three years later, she became COO. Last year, Senecal became A&W Canada’s CEO, the fifth in its history and first woman to occupy the position. Senecal’s professional life is almost wholly oriented around the brand. She understands both its valuable, enduring traditions as well as what can be shed.

“Climate allows us to live with, benefit from and leverage our differences”

“There’s a couple constants at the heart of our success. Since the 1970s, long before I joined, we’ve been a strategy-driven company, and that emerged out of our need to adapt to the changing world,” says Senecal. “The world changes, but our process hasn’t changed very much at all.”

Senecal cites A&W’s strategy-driven approach to foodservice as one of those constants. From the start, the brand has been adaptable, evolving in tandem with Boomers’ consumption habits. That approach is the product of regular meetings that assess strong points and weaknesses, find opportunities and, if necessary, make major changes (2012’s meeting being a case in point). The meetings depend on managers speaking up, which is encouraged by what Senecal refers to as “climate.” People challenge one another, and those differences, articulated civilly, make for productive creative output. Senecal credits it for the long tenure of managers and executives at the company, including her own. “Climate allows us to live with, benefit from and leverage our differences and include those in a positive way,” says Senecal. “It’s a powerful way to manage a business.”

Now, Senecal has to harness those differences toward making purposeful changes. A&W was the first chain in Canada to adopt the Beyond Meat Burger, a plant-based patty that’s about as close to the real thing as you can get. The move struck the right generational chord and quickly sold out. A&W Canada also got rid of its single-use plastic straws — another Canadian first — using the last of them toward a cheeky 10-metre long, orange straw epitaph saying “Change is Good.” Adopting ingredient guarantees helped cement and publicize the already long-held, uncomplicated value to make good food.

But rolling out the Beyond Meat Burger and dropping plastic straws weren’t strategic ends; they were strategic means. They’re focal points around which customers can sharpen their idea of what A&W is. Senecal is positioning A&W Canada as the QSR for the food savvy set that seeks out new ingredients, different recipes and eat because they love eating. “That interest that drives people into food halls, farmers markets, marketplaces and grocery stores is the same one that’s fuelling interest in our restaurants as well,” says Senecal.

A&W Canada is a Boomer, but one whose values work for Millennials and Gen Z. With Senecal at the helm, it has been nimble enough to navigate a huge generational shift. “Guests are pushing us in certain ways. We’re responding as best we can.”

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