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Architecture + Branding: A and W restaurants best cruise steadfastly to recapture nostalgic magic

1-Brewing something big

Utilizing a formula he had purchased from a pharmacist, Roy Allen opened a roadside root beer stand in Lodi, California in 1919 (source: wikipedia). It would be the first of many, as several additional stands would be subsequently added.

In 1920, Roy Allen would join with Frank Wright and market the root beer under the A&W name. Shortly thereafter, Allen began franchising the root beer, eventually buying out Wright’s share in the business, and pursuing a restaurant franchise sales program (source: wikipedia). Franchisees would buy concentrated root beer syrup from Allen, and operate under the A&W name and logo (source: wikipedia).

Franchise numbers grew, and by the early half of the 1930s, there were more than 170 A&W franchised outlets offering the unique root beer beverage (source: wikipedia). Lacking a common menu, architecture, and operational system, some franchisees began selling food along with the root beer (source: wikipedia). In the later half of the decade into the first half of the 1940s, franchisees would contend with labour shortage and sugar rationing due to World War II (source: wikipedia).

As the war ended and GIs were returning home, the number of A&W restaurants in the United States tripled, encouraged in part by GI loans (source: wikipedia).

2-The Baby Boom, optimism and Car culture

The Baby Boom, experienced simultaneously in the United States, Canada and other World War II Allied countries. Generally referring to the cohort of those born between 1946 and 1964, there remains some divergent opinion within demographers as to the exact beginning and end of the generational cohort (source: wikipedia, Population: An introduction to concepts and issues, John Weeks). By virtue of their sheer size, the Boomer Generation would have a significant and lasting impact on trends and society in general, which would forever alter the landscape.

Along with the unprecedented demographic changes that were underway, the 1950s and 1960s are for the most part defined as decades of increasing optimism, prosperity, conveniences and material wealth. Americans were also becoming more mobile, as the automobile took on a greater role in daily life, eventually leading into the glory days of the “muscle car” era.

In fact, in 1950, A&W restaurants numbered in excess of 450, a time when drive-in restaurants became more popular as Americans increasingly embraced the automobile (source: wikipedia). Also around this time, A&W founder Roy Allen would sell the business (source: wikipedia).

A&W Restaurant (drive-in with carhops), Page, Arizona (source: wikipedia)

A&W Root Beer Company would be formed, and expansion into Canada begun in 1956 (source: wikipedia, aw.ca, awrestaurants.com). At the time, the American and Canadian operations were set up as separate and distinct entities, although both operated under the A&W name.

Subsequently, the number of A&W restaurant had mushroomed to more than 2,000 locations by 1960 (source: wikipedia).

3-Relevance lost with social shift

The decades that followed brought with them several seismic shifts that would reshape retailing, along with the expanding role of the automobile. The progressive decline of the drive-in restaurant concept throughout the 1970s, combined with the rapid growth of retail shopping centres would challenge the relevance of the A&W restaurant chain. These changes resulted in a broad number of established restaurants closing concurrently as new kiosk type “food court” restaurants were being opened in mall locations (source: awrestaurants.com).

Throughout the decades, the company would be sold, and resold several times over, culminating in the most recent sale of the A&W restaurant chain to A Great American Brand LLC, by former owner Yum! Brands, in 2011. As the A&W restaurant brand meandered between owners, a lack of cohesive and comprehensive vision arose, compounding and accelerating the loss of brand relevance in the marketplace. Furthermore, under the Yum! Brands ownership, A&W restaurants lost a significant amount of their remaining unique Architectural Identity by being joined with other Yum! Brands, such as KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s, in co-branded stores.

Alternatively, the Canadian experience, which benefited from a less tumultuous ownership story, has been markedly different.

4-Standards stewardship

Somewhat ironically, the brand promoting “All American Food” has been maintaining a growth momentum on Canadian soil. Currently having secured the number two spot in total burger chain outlets, A&W restaurants trails only perennial leader McDonald’s in Canada (source: Maclean’s, May 29, 2012).

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), London, Ontario, Wonderland Road near Southdale

This colossal feat was achieved by design. Although the A&W brand can trace back to the early part of the 20th century, it was the mid-century decades, those in which the Boomers were born, that truly captured the unique essence of the A&W restaurant brand. Thus, focused on rekindling some of the magic of the idyllic 50s and 60s, the chain has applied a comprehensive branding approach that includes establishing and maintaining a positively brand reinforcing Architectural Identity in Canada.

A&W Restaurant (Urban), Montreal, Quebec, Mont Royal and rue St Denis

Promoting four types of restaurant designs, which can be summed up as mall/indoor locations (enclosed captive), combined locations (convenience), downtown locations (urban) and stand alone restaurants (freestanding), it is by far the freestanding locations, the most common in the chain portfolio, that serve as the model which best embodies and articulates the brand attributes (source: aw.ca).

A&W Restaurant (Convenience) and Petro-Canada gas station, Montreal, Quebec, Mont Royal and Avenue du Parc

The freestanding restaurants have a relatively straightforward and efficient rectangular building shape. This rectangular shape inherently leads to a combination of two narrow and two significantly longer elevations. As a result, the narrow end elevations have drastically less variation than the adjacent sides.

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), Kemptville, Ontario

The elevations are generally visually broken, either horizontally, vertically, or a combination of both depending on the façade, with a variety of materials and textures.

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), Kemptville, Ontario

In some cases, the longer side elevations also benefit from a multitude of materials to attempt to compartmentalize and break up the facades into smaller more distinct vertical elements. A common element found on the longer façade, the A&W blade, a towering wedge element that bisects the elevation. Variable in colour, the towering wedge with a softly curving parapet edge, extends above the principal roof line and serves as a prime location for A&W signage.

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), Montreal (Dollard-Des-Ormeaux), Quebec, Boulevard des Sources

Additionally, the freestanding restaurant design benefits from an evocative and unifying design element. The wide, open V-shaped applied banding element, intermittently wrapping the restaurant, undulating from the centre towards the edges imitates and telegraphs the concave butterfly roof, a popular mid-century architectural design element. The banding element, in bright orange, tends to draw the eye, masking and minimizing the simple rectangular building shape behind.

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), Montreal (Dollard-Des-Ormeaux), Quebec, Boulevard des Sources

Accentuating both ends, and elevating them, the result makes the narrower ends seem taller than the middle portion of the building. The visually elongating effect in the vertical plane aids to gain an aura of prominence and grandeur for the building ends.

A&W Restaurant (Freestanding), Montreal (Dollard-Des-Ormeaux), Quebec, Boulevard des Sources

The overall design effect is a thoroughly modern building that taps into nostalgia, recasting some of the more endearing and desirable qualities of a time in recent American history that is generally remembered and referenced with a generally sense of fondness.

Restaurant building with authentic mid-century “butterfly roof”, Alfred, Ontario, County Road 17

5-Bottling the essence

Initially entrenched around the root beer drink, the A&W brand has been inadvertently straddling boundaries for decades between the beverage and the restaurant chain, each with their own demands and brand elements.

Drawing inspiration from the brand stewardship north of the border, the beverage brand touted as serving up “Classic American refreshment since 1919”, could apply some of that proven Architectural Identity formulation to re-ignite the A&W restaurant brand on American soil, re-establish brand authenticity, and rekindle some of the brand essence of decades past to a generation that still remembers, as well as to entirely new generations that yearn to discover the home of the “Papa burger”.

1965 Plymouth Barracuda V8 Front Fender Emblem

Renewed interest among enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts, combined with the return of classic American “muscle car” nameplates such as Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger, and rumours of a possible Barracuda revival, could prove to be a fortuitous opportunity to tap into the Boomer nostalgia that is inherently sown into the A&W restaurant brand.


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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