A&W plans move into better-burger world with test of fast-casual restaurant

Lexington-based A&W Restaurants plans to test a fast-casual restaurant here later this year that will be more similar to a Five Guys or Smashburger store than the chain's existing fast-food look and feel.

It's a major move for the company, which was sold by Louisville-based Yum Brands in late 2011 to a partnership that includes franchisees.

"We've seen a lot of success within the burger portion of fast-casual with Five Guys just exploding and Smashburger," said Liz Bazner, A&W's social and digital communications strategist. "This is our way of saying these are options."

The company won't be converting any of its existing restaurants, which include ones that are co-branded with Long John Silver's and KFC, as well as other ones that are drive-ins similar to Sonic.

"We'll still have drive-ins and co-branded restaurants, but here's another option for someone who wants to visit an A&W," Bazner said.

Dubbed "A&W 2.0" for now, the test restaurant will have a different name but will incorporate A&W in the name in some form, Bazner said.

She said the company is deciding between two locations in Lexington. It will be the third restaurant for the chain in the city, which has long had a store co-branded with Long John Silver's on Main Street. The second is a traditional A&W that is expected to open in late summer in Fayette Mall's food court.

The test restaurant will move the company toward fresh, made-to-order burgers, Bazner said.

"We still want it to be nostalgic, but we also want to pay homage to us moving forward," she said. "In our design elements, we really like the idea of referencing in the artwork that this is a Lexington store."

The store will be owned by the company, not a franchisee.

"Since this is a new concept, we want to test it ourselves," Bazner said.

The idea drew praise from Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies for design-development company WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio.

"Kudos to them for experimenting," he said.

But he questioned how the burgers will be prepared and taste compared to competitors' offerings.

"Where on the better-burger spectrum do they want to place that?" he said. "There's an awful wide spectrum of the caliber of hamburger offerings in that fast-casual segment.

"You'll go from Five Guys to Bobby Flay's Burger Palace. There's a lot of difference between those."

Lombardi also noted the architectural look, service model and pricing will all need to be different enough to make the restaurant unique compared to traditional A&W locations.

"What they really have going for them is the iconic image of the root beer, the frosted mug, the floats and all that good stuff," he said. "That should give them an interesting marketing position to promote this new brand."

Don Sniegowski, editor of franchise news site, said he's glad the company is testing the concept itself rather than relying on a franchisee.

He said he's skeptical of the project, though.

"Sometimes troubled systems throw a hail Mary pass," he said. "They'll say, 'Let's do something completely different,' in the hopes that this will save their system."

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