Iconic fast food chain A&W is gearing up for growth throughout Wisconsin, including in the Milwaukee area.
Lexington, Kentucky-based A&W Restaurants Inc. is looking to build free-standing, drive-thru restaurant locations, either on open pad sites or existing gas and convenience store properties. The company hasn’t settled on a target number of new stores, but the plan is to “grow responsibly,” said John Palumbo, senior director of franchise development.“We want to grow without saturating the market to where we hurt other franchise owners’ business and/or create a saturation point where it doesn’t make sense to have so many restaurants in an area,” said Palumbo.
A&W currently has two franchise locations in southeastern Wisconsin, in Hales Corners and Franksville, with a total of 49 across the state. Its nationwide store count is nearly 600. The company is currently focused on growing in the upper Midwest, thanks to the region's longtime loyalty to the 100-year-old root beer brand.
"We’re not the youngest brand around, but we’re nimble..., " Palumbo said. "Things change as they should in every franchise system. What's always been a constant, though, has been the brand recognition in the upper Midwest for A&W, the affinity for that brand. And Milwaukee is no different."
The company is actively recruiting both new and existing franchisees to open additional locations in the Milwaukee area, as well as Madison. Locally, there's been a handful of prospects that have expressed interest, but no agreements have been signed yet.
Similar to other quick-service restaurant chains, A&W performed well during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the company recorded a 10% same store sales increase for its free standing drive thru restaurants. To date, sales are up 25% over last year, said Palumbo.
For A&W's Franksville location, the pandemic and consequential shifts in diner behavior boosted 2020 sales at least 20% to 25% over 2019. Sales have continue to rise this year, so far by another 20%, especially as people have begun to travel again, said third-generation owner Phil Welch.
"We get a lot of people from Illinois, and tons of people from Milwaukee who love driving to us," said Welch. "That's why I believe there's a demand in Milwaukee (for more restaurants); they know our product, they know Wisconsin."
Welch's grandparents first opened A&W Franksville in 1954. The business has since relocated three times; its currently location at 13520 Northwestern Ave. has a double drive-thru, indoor dining and outdoor patio.
"We've updated with the times but have continued to keep the roots of A&W homemade root beer floats and the family atmosphere throughout all these years," said Welch, who took over the franchise from his father in 2014 after seeing its recession-proof success.
"People have comfort coming into our place, a sense of normalcy, and it gives them happiness when they see our service, smiles and quality food."
A&W often has prospective franchisees speak with Welch about what it's like to operate in the area.
"I tell them, 'We've got every brand imaginable around us, but people still want our homemade root beer, frosted mugs and ice cream. We've got competitive differences against many other franchises that are successful in Wisconsin, but we've never gone down in sales in 60 years, even when the other franchises pop up around us."
As A&W plans its local expansion, Welch and his wife Brittany will continue to focus on their one location -- at least for now.