Inside the A&W test kitchen, a battlefield in the fast food wars

Inside the A&W test kitchen, a battlefield in the fast food wars

One of the latest volleys in the multibillion-dollar fast food wars started with a late night on Karan Suri’s TikTok.

A&W’s director of menu development was scrolling his phone when he came across the “pickle girl” trend that was making the rounds last year, with women (and one very loud and adorable three-year-old) showing their love for preserved cucumbers.

By the next morning, he was mixing up different pickle-based sauces in the burger chain’s test kitchen in North Vancouver. Five weeks later, he’d nailed down a recipe that formed the bedrock of last summer’s A&W spicy dill burger. 

“Our supplier … nailed it in the first go,” said Suri, standing in the test kitchen in mid-March, noting that the five weeks from idea to product was a record for him.

Pressure to shake it up

While much of the industry’s appeal comes from its familiarity, fast food brands also face pressure to shake up their menus in response to growing competition and changing consumer tastes. 

Often, this process begins with rolling out a new limited-time offer, which brands hope will generate buzz and, if they’re lucky, inspire McRib or pumpkin spice latte levels of devotion. 

It’s a high stakes game for the $42.6-billion fast food industry.

While fast food joints have fared well amid inflation, the industry’s growth is starting to slow while the number of competitors continues to rise, according to the retail analytics firm Circana, and staying relevant is key to staying in the game. 

Art vs. science

Stepping into the A&W test kitchen is like walking into a supersized version of a fast food kitchen, with about 10 times the equipment. Different restaurants have different grills and fryers, so the space needs an unusual abundance of gear to make sure recipes work the same no matter where they’re rolled out. 

On a recent visit, the space was meticulously clean and notably aroma-free. 

It’s here that Suri — who previously worked at luxury hotels in India, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates — along with his team, try to figure out what the next thing is that customers will want to eat. It’s a process that’s both a science and an art. 

WATCH | A look inside the A&W test kitchen: 

How a fast food trend goes from idea to table

CBC business reporter Paula Duhatschek talks to A&W Director of Menu Development Karan Suri to get the inside scoop on how the fast food chain comes up with popular menu items like their Spicy Piri-Piri Potato Buddy.

Though Suri got his pickle sauce in five weeks, developing recipes can in some cases take years. A Nashville chicken glaze went through 57 different variations before the team hit upon a version that could be mass produced and stay shelf-stable inside a hot restaurant kitchen.

“It needs to be to work in those very, very tough kitchen environments,” said David Ioi, Suri’s copilot in the test kitchen and a food scientist.

A&W gets reams of data from its forecasters and suppliers about what flavours are popular now and which ones are expected to take off in the years ahead. 

From menu hack to menu item

It also looks to consumers. 

For the first time, the company introduced a new menu item this year based on a menu hack. A Mississauga franchise owner noticed customers from the South Asian community were buying hamburgers but substituting beef patties for hash browns.

“I’m from India and there’s a big, big population of vegetarian folks there,” said Suri. “They don’t eat meat, don’t eat chicken — but we have hash browns.”

A close-up of an A&W burger with a hashbrown instead of a beef patty.
An A&W hash brown burger, rolled out in response to a menu hack by customers, is pictured in North Vancouver on March 14. (CBC)

Shifting demographics are a key part of why restaurants mix up their menus in the first place. 

Many burger-and-fry chains have their roots in the midtwentieth century, but since that time Canadian consumers and their palates have changed.

“A lot of these new immigrants, they are your guests now — they come with their own flavours and their own cultures and their own cuisines,” said Suri.

Smaller, globally inspired chains compete for dollars

Vince Sgabellone, food service industry analyst for Circana Canada, said the traditional burger chains find themselves competing against a greater number of fast food players with globally inspired cuisine — for instance, Osmow’s Shawarma, Thai Express and Roti Butter Chicken, he said.

And it’s not just fast food where that shift is happening, according to flavour expert Cecilia Pereyra. 

A sliced chicken wrap on a platter of fries.
Burger joints are no longer just competing against burger joints, but other fast-food options like shawarma restaurants. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)

From snack foods to drinks to desserts – some of the most popular flavours in North America right now have their roots in other parts of the world.

“Ginger, spicy honey, jerk flavours, miso, tahini, sesame seed flavours — those are all increasingly popular,” said Pereyra, global product marketer for International Flavours and Fragrances, a U.S.-based company that develops flavours for everything from multivitamins to potato chips. 

Competition on the rise

For legacy brands, the trick is to marry new-to-them flavours with the familiar products they’re known for.

Adding a new seasoning or sauce to a mainstay, like a potato chip or hamburger, is a common way to do that — a concept known in the industry as “familiar discovery.”

LISTEN | How fast food companies fight to stay relevant: 

Cost of Living8:18Fast food and “familiar discovery”

Fast food restaurants aim to give us what we like and what we know. But as Canada’s demographics change, so do our tastes. CBC reporter Paula Duhatschek goes into the A&W test kitchen to learn what it takes to invent new menu items that give people a taste of something fresh, while staying tried and true. 

“‘Familiar discovery’ is the idea that we can give someone something reasonably familiar and then just put a layer of novelty over top of it that makes it new and interesting,” said Derek Vella, director of the University of Guelph Food Innovation Centre.

“[Customers] are more likely to buy it that way, more likely to enjoy it,” he said, pointing to the new iced yuzu drink at Tim Hortons as another example.

Spicy everything

Inside the A&W test kitchen are about a half-dozen spicy sauces under development. They range from a Sichuan-style chili oil-based sauce to a Moroccan pepper aioli that features notes of cinnamon and coriander. 

“In Canada spicy has just taken off in the last four years, and it’s not your traditional hot sauce spicy,” said Suri.

A&W has about 70 products in the works right now, though only a small number will make their way out of the test kitchen and into a test market — and only after extensive testing. 

“A lot of the decisions we make … [are] based on data, from going into our supplier partners’ facilities and dialling in exactly how everything gets produced down to the millimetre, down to the gram,” said Ioi.

A man in a blue button-down shirt and a blue apron prepares to taste a spoonful of spicy sauce.
David Ioi, menu development manager at A&W, prepares to taste a spoonful of spicy sauce in North Vancouver on March 14. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He estimates he’s cooked their limited-edition piri-piri burger about 500 times to ensure the cooking instructions are specific enough. 

“Everything has to be very consistent and almost exactly the same.”

It’s time-consuming work, but industry analyst Sgabellone said there’s more of it happening.

During the pandemic many restaurants closed their test kitchens and pared their menus back to simplify and save money. 

But as the world has opened up, brands are increasingly rolling out new menu items, whether they’re entirely new recipes or nostalgic re-releases

“That wave of innovation is flooding back into the market right now,” he said.

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