A&W’s CEO On Growing a 98-year-old Brand
Riding in the car with A&W CEO Kevin Bazner on our way to a third-generation, family-owned restaurant in western Wisconsin, I had the opportunity to ask more questions than any gracious source should be subjected to. Bazner showed off his executive chops during his impressive international career as I asked about jazzing up the menu, shifting its marketing message and bolstering the profits of a 98-year-old restaurant brand.
One of his central themes that stuck with me was “creating a long-term, defensible position” for A&W’s future growth, rather than unveiling some flash-in-the-pan, “sexy” plan for revitalizing one of franchising’s oldest brands. As a franchise reporter, I hear my fair share of turnaround plans.
While the details are nuanced, the basics of A&W’s plan in the post-Yum era has focused on making the brand’s franchisees more money—another example of increased sales curing many ills. In specific, that has included once again making its famous root beer in house rather than shipping it premixed, freshening the menu with new or revised items like the truly excellent chicken strips, new dessert items, and making cost-effective physical improvements that fit the individual needs of each franchisee.
Now, after more than five years as CEO, Bazner and his team are starting to see the fruits of incremental gains that, taken together and compounded with time, are adding up to a rather dramatic transformation. Quality and value, as he explained more than a few times, makes up that so-called long-term, defensible market position.
Chatting with Paul Martino, A&W’s COO, at our Franchise Finance & Growth Conference in Las Vegas earlier this year, he explained that one of the primary challenges for the company was that its unit-level economics didn’t support the construction of new units.
After raising that with Bazner as we motored toward Baldwin, Wisconsin, he explained that those tables had begun to turn, with the brand poised to add several brand-new units in the coming months. His excitement was palpable as he ticked off the many initiatives that were producing the current string of back-to-back same-store sales gains.
Once we reached the restaurant, we met with three generations of the Walker family who have operated this location on a busy freeway interchange for decades. The Walkers graciously agreed to answer some impromptu questions and participate in a photo shoot that produced some adorable photos for my feature story for an upcoming issue of Franchise Times. We even got to mix up a batch of root beer in the basement before hitting the road.
As A&W nears the century mark, expect to see the brand play off its long history and the many people who have fond memories of the brand, whether that’s as a customer, employee or franchisee. It’s fun to tell stories like this, and I haven’t forgotten the power of Bazner’s mantra of producing solid, steady gains for the company, rather than spending big on a plan that’s more of a roll of the dice. Sounds to me like a plan fit for a brand that’s seen its fair share of American history.