Restaurant News & Reviews

After Yum, A&W returned to its roots: Real root beer, burgers

Kevin Bazner, president and CEO of A&W Restaurants, had lunch – a burger cooked and dressed to order – at the Main Street location in Lexington. He credits store-made root beer, National Root Beer Float Day and great burgers with turning the chain around five years after Yum sold it off.
Kevin Bazner, president and CEO of A&W Restaurants, had lunch – a burger cooked and dressed to order – at the Main Street location in Lexington. He credits store-made root beer, National Root Beer Float Day and great burgers with turning the chain around five years after Yum sold it off. palcala@herald-leader.com

When is a root beer float more than a root beer float? When it’s a life-preserver.

When Yum brands sold A&W to its franchisers five years ago, the restaurant chain was beyond struggling. With only about 300 restaurants in the U.S. and about the same number overseas, A&W was losing stores and sales.

But five years later, the Lexington-headquartered company’s same-store sales are up by more than 30 percent, said CEO Kevin Bazner, and last year, for the first time, it opened more stores than it closed. In 2017, A&W is expanding again, opening about 20 stores in the U.S. and about 40 more overseas.

And the brand does it without a national “value” menu, without national advertising, or television commercials to speak of.

How?

One key: the root beer. A&W owns the sole rights to sell the fountain version, which all the stores now make again in-house for the first time in years.

And, yes, it tastes different from the bottled version, Bazner said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

It’s creamier because it has less carbonation, and is made with real cane sugar and no preservatives, he said. That gives it the signature taste that customers know.

That, and the frosty mug. It’s just not the same in a glass. Which is why the stores give you a mug instead of a plain glass, even though it’s more work for the restaurants to deal with heavy glass mugs with handles, he said.

It’s our signature product and has a lot to do with our success with millennials. They want things hand-crafted. We’re the original craft soda.

A&W CEO Kevin Bazner on the company’s fountain root beer

The stores all have switched back to draft, giving customers a chance to pour it from a tap, just like beer.

And, boy, do they pour it: Root beer outsells all other soft drinks combined by three to one in A&W stores, Bazner said.

But the real lifesaver might be the float. A few years ago, somebody in the corporate office noticed that there is a National Root Beer Float Day.

“We didn’t create it, but we said ‘we need to own that,’” Bazner said.

About four years go, A&W started giving away small floats with a purchase on Aug. 6 and partnered with charities to draw in more business. The community event also generates free media.

This year’s charity, Disabled American Veterans, is expected to reap more than $150,000 from the chain’s fundraising.

The rewards for A&W haven’t been small either. National Root Beer Float Day is now “literally our busiest day of the year,” Bazner said.

Float day has raised all the boats. It gave the chain a gimmick to draw in new customers, who are either old enough to remember the root beer of their childhood or young enough to be attracted to the authenticity of a 98-year-old brand that’s returned to its roots.

“It resonates,” Bazner said. “It’s our signature product and has a lot to do with our success with millennials. They want things hand-crafted. We’re the original craft soda.”

Millennials want customization.

A&W CEO Kevin Bazner

The move back to real root beer in a mug from a draft pour wasn’t random. The concept was thoroughly tested in A&W’s three concept stores in Lexington before it was rolled out to hundreds of franchises around the country and the world.

Following similar testing, the chain has moved forward with other quality tweaks, including a better french fry and hand-breaded chicken tenders, and is working on a way to switch the franchise to all-fresh beef burgers, cooked and dressed to order.

There are still supply wrinkles that need to be ironed out, Bazner said, but he thinks it will be worth the effort.

Already, the Lexington stores have seen impressive proof of the draw of a gourmet burger: during Lexington Burger Week in July, for the past two years, the three Lexington A&Ws sold about 6,000 special burgers, competing with high-end restaurants like Bluegrass Hospitality Group’s Malone’s.

Crowds lined up outside the doors, most waiting patiently, for a chance to buy a $5 “Papa Pimento” burger at the three Lexington locations. Business was up 30 percent over normal, he said. “There was no question it was quality.”

Next year, he said, they plan to let customers help them decide what the special burger will be with a contest, probably on social media.

“Millennials want customization,” he said. “That’s one of the top things customers give us credit for here in Lexington.”

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