Eighty percent of the Canadian population lives in an urban area. So when A&W Canada embarked upon a "renewal process" in 2008, a main objective was to expand its footprint in metropolitan markets.
A&W Canada, which was originally part of the American-based chain until 1972, turned in sales of $794 million last year, No. 2 in the country behind McDonald's. The exploration of new markets was a big change for the 730-unit chain, which mostly exists in rural areas and has a faithful, older consumer base.
The challenge was in not compromising the 55-year-old iconic brand while at the same time wooing a younger, mobile and technologically savvy crowd.
Rob Fussey, director of concept development at A&W Canada, said the company was starting from scratch, both with its design and in finding a new consumer base.
Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide was tapped to execute the prototype, which now exists in 12 units.
"A&W had a strong loyalty from the baby boomer demographic and they wanted to continue that, but also create new consumers and create a contemporary relevance for them," said Rob Depp, vice president of specialty retail design and project supervisor at FRCH.
Based on early favorable feedback from the prototype stores, A&W is undertaking an aggressive expansion program throughout Canada – with a unit growth potential "in the hundreds," according to Fussey.
Focusing on A&W's "quirky" personality
Although the company was purposefully going for new customers, A&W Canada requested that the design maintain some traditional branding elements, such as the brown and orange color scheme and logo.
"We wanted someone to feel like they're in an A&W when they walked in, and to have that brand experience Canadian consumers have grown up with," Fussey said. "There is a familiarity and an expectation and we didn't want to lose that."
At the same time, Fussey admits, part of the mold had to be broken.
FRCH's approach focused on using A&W's "quirky" personality to create an experience that is simple, flexible and convenient, but with just enough nostalgia to convey authenticity.
"We wanted to express something new without alienating the consumer that already loves the brand. We played up the burgers, root beer and other traditional elements, but we did it in a contemporary and bold way," said Paul Lechleiter, chief creative officer of FRCH.
The prototype's main design elements (see photos here) include:
- An attention-grabbing storefront framed by the A&W orange color. "The big illuminated window and graphics express not only the urban neighborhood, but also the brand. It was critical for us to come up with street recognition and put a cool spin on it so younger people would be curious," Lechleiter said.
- A chevron featured as an over-scaled illuminated chandelier just inside the storefront to welcome guests as a secondary branded element. "The chevron acts almost like a lantern, with a warm, inviting glow," Depp said.
- Urbanesque material designs such as stained concrete floors, raw metal details, exposed connection points and open ceilings.
- Various seating styles – from stand-up railings to stools to booths – providing flexibility whether guests are grabbing a quick bite or staying for a full meal. Lighting also changes throughout the interior. Softer pendant lights, for example, hang over the more intimate seating areas.
Leveraging the traditional menu
While this catchy design scheme may fit a modern style, it hardly scratches the surface of A&W's true story revolving around burgers and root beer.
FRCH visually communicated the food through artwork that plays on the idea of a layered, playbill-encrusted telephone pole found in big cities. Also, a "coaster wall" includes a collection of about 30 designed drink coasters that are free. The idea is for customers to use a coaster while they're dining in, and to take it home as a collectible when they leave.
"The artwork packages are used to express community and culture and to constantly change as new expressions come up. We're trying to set it up so there is always something new and surprising at A&W; there's always going to be a different experience," said Lechleiter.
Tapping technology to cater to younger crowd
Brands often turn to technology components to really grab the attention of a younger demographic. Urban A&W units each feature two to four self-service kiosks, supplied by Panasonic Canada. This is A&W Canada's first foray into self-service ordering.
"The kiosks made sense for the target we were going for, which was 20 to 35 year olds looking for a burger in a hurry. We wanted them to be able to manage their own time through the ordering process and with this option, they can," Fussey said.
The self-service kiosk order and pick-up areas are separate from the traditional queues. Fussey said consumer response to the technology has been mostly positive.
"Kiosks have seen very little development so far in Canada, so the feedback depends on restaurant location. We have one restaurant that had a 20-percent lift in sales through the kiosks, so overall it's been a good experience so far," he said.
Additionally, FRCH placed a smaller menu with minimal information next to each ordering terminal. This unusual feature was born out of FRCH's research that found people tend to order the same items repeatedly because they feel more pressure while they're looking up at a large, busy menu board.
"By putting these menu boards next to the POS, it's creating more of a dialogue between the person behind the counter and the person ordering," said Depp. "But because we cut the clutter, it's still a quick process."
FRCH's clients have included plenty of big names in the QSR space – from Yum! Brands to McDonald's and Starbucks. Depp said A&W Canada's specific design and how it plays into the chain's expansion plan make plenty of business sense.
"The smart brands are the ones looking to the future. To be relevant, you have to evolve," Depp said. "That doesn't mean walking away from your core consumer base or compromising your brand – history counts. But you have to add ways to tap into the next pipeline."
Read more about restaurant design and layout trends.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.