Susan Senecal’s first job with A&W sold her on the restaurant industry, but she already had a favourable view of the sector.
Among her many part-time jobs as a McGill science student, Senecal worked in a restaurant in a Montreal department store.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of restaurant experience, but I had enough to know that I liked the milieu,” says Senecal, BSc’81, president and CEO of A&W Food Services of Canada Inc.
“For me, what I like is the fast pace, the people orientation,” says Senecal, who has worked at Canada’s second-largest burger chain for 27 years. There’s lots to learn and lots to influence quickly, she adds.
“The pace of the business is so quick that you can think about things in the morning, implement them at lunchtime, kind of know how you’ve done by the afternoon, [and] put some better plans into place the next day,”says Senecal.
“So there’s this constant and very quick cycle of learning and improvement that a lot of businesses don’t offer.”
Senecal led A&W’s strategy that included switching to beef raised without added hormones or steroids. (The company also uses chicken and pork raised without the use of antibiotics.)
“I was chief marketing officer at the time,” says Senecal, who notes the company wanted to shift its focus from baby boomers to millennials. “We really thought that one way to help us achieve that shift was to put some new people and some new ideas [in place] and sort of start a fresh page, a fresh chapter. I got to lead that work, which was…a really exciting time.”
A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. eliminated plastic straws from its restaurants in 2018 – it offers paper, biodegradable ones. It was the first national burger chain in the country to stop using processed cheese, serving real cheddar instead. It also introduced The Beyond Meat Burger and initially couldn’t keep up with demand for the popular plant-based patty.
“I think we are always looking at what comes next. So, the changes in the world, how we can change and respond,” she says.
Now based in Vancouver, Senecal grew up on Montreal’s South Shore. After graduating from McGill, she ran a business overseas with gems and jewellery. Upon her return, Senecal knew she loved business and wanted to get more involved in it.
She landed a restaurant management trainee position, and later got hired by A&W in 1992 as an area manager for 12 restaurants in Montreal and its suburbs.
“I got to learn about A&W, how we manage, as well as really discovering that I loved the restaurant business. Initially, I was just about business and then I really discovered that that was the business I wanted to be in.”
Senecal took over at the helm in 2018, making her A&W’s first woman and fully bilingual CEO. When it announced her appointment, the company noted Senecal had been “involved in or led almost all major areas of the business, including operations, development, real estate and marketing”.
“It felt more like an evolution to me,” Senecal says of the transition to chief executive, and acknowledges knowing the company’s operations so well is a huge plus.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities. I think at A&W we bet on people, versus skills and knowledge that we think we can teach in other ways. So I had an opportunity to delve into areas and to lead areas of the business that I didn’t really have the experience and knowledge [of] in the beginning, but I was able to garner it and develop it over time.”
A&W has more than 950 locations across Canada. Its eastern expansion has ramped up in the past five years, especially in Quebec and Ontario.
“We continue to find expansion and very successful growth in Western Canada, in the Maritimes as well. We’re happy with how that’s going.”
The company is constantly innovating, says Senecal, who mentions the need for balance between traditions and expectations. A&W has been using its frosty mugs since 1956. “But at the same time tastes evolve. Canada’s population is changing. People are looking for different things and they want to experiment,” she says.
“I think we’re a brand with long legacy, long traditions, and we totally respect that,” says Senecal.
“We make our onion rings in our restaurants every single day. There are things that will never change, but there is also an openness to say let’s go down different paths because people are hoping that someone will guide them there.”