“If I had to say, it was quite a sentimental decision,” admits George Ang, the new owner of A&W Malaysia.
The man behind Inter Mark Resources, which acquired the country’s oldest fast food chain from KUB Malaysia in a RM34 million deal last year, is no stranger to the food and beverage business, having the likes of Manhattan Fish Market, Tony Roma’s and NY Steak Shack under his portfolio.
Yet, the decision to undertake A&W - largely seen as tired, even dated, compared to other quick service restaurants - was driven by a passion to make the brand great again.
“I used to always go to the A&W Petaling Jaya drive in outlet when I was younger,” Ang says casually at the start of the interview at EkoCheras mall in Kuala Lumpur - one of eight new outlets rolled out since he took over in September 2018.
Consumer affinity towards A&W is strong, Ang is convinced. “The brand awareness is almost one hundred percent in Malaysia,” he says. “It has so much good branding, and a good menu too.”
The brand awareness is almost one hundred percent in Malaysia
However, even its iconic root beer and coney dog couldn’t stave off the troubles that beset the brand; it faced aggressive competition from other fast-food chains. A revolving door of owners and executives also took a toll on it.
“It became a financial play for people who bought the company,” he quips. Calling it as his biggest personal investment thus far, Ang’s has his work cut out.
Most of its 40 stores (prior to the takeover) have to be refurbished. A&W’s 1000-strong workforce needed retraining and upskilling. It was also sorely lacking in the technology department.
“Until today, we are the only fast food chain in Malaysia that don’t have a credit card payment system - we are still 100 percent cash,” he says with a slight sense of incredulity.
“It’s a pity, but this is a brand that can go far if it was run well.”
Ang’s first order of business - to put in place a solid tech infrastructure, including cloud-based enterprise resource management and cashless payment systems (credit card, too).
“We are looking to introduce self-order kiosks next year,” says Ang. The group has budgeted five to ten million ringgit to invest in technology over the next 24 months.
Ang also underscores the need to fast-track orders, admitting that A&W’s speed of service is lacking in the past. “I can’t be going to a fast food chain and wait for 30 minutes,” says Ang. “I should get my meal within five minutes.” Customer service training will be a key focus over the next three three months, he adds.
A&W Plans to Have 100 Outlets by 2021 to Improve Convenience Factor
A&W is also switching up its menu. It swap frozen chicken with fresh ones starting February. After a thorough look at its old offering, Ang and his team decided to introduce new sides like coleslaw and rice.
“We will be coming out with more menu choices in the next 12 months for healthy options. But I think being ‘healthy’ also means having a balanced meal. So, a burger, with a mash (potato) and coleslaw is still a pretty balanced meal,” says Ang. “You can still have your root beer,” he adds with a smile.
The group plans to ramp up to 100 outlets over the next 24 to 36 months, and is aims to have a wider footprint in second and third tier cities
Ang’s favourite dish? The coney dog, with a dash of citrus gravy with salted egg crumbs - a new flavour that A&W introduced recently.
But the serial entrepreneur, once a Pizza Hut delivery boy, is acutely aware that new innovations would be rendered pointless unless A&W improves on its weakness - accessibility.
A fast food’s core competency is to provide convenience, which A&W had struggled for many years when competing with the bigger chains.
“At only 40 stores, a lot of people want to get to us but they can’t,” says Ang.
The group plans to ramp up to 100 outlets over the next 24 to 36 months, and is aims to have a wider footprint in second and third tier cities.
“We just opened one outlet in Kluang. We were surprised at the reception - it was doing much better than a lot of our Klang Valley stores when we opened,” says Ang who is gearing up to start an A&W academy to train and upskill staffs.
“To get to a hundred (stores), we’ll have to double the size of the staff force. That means you need to train another thousand people to really know the brand and understand how to serve guests."
“ This business is not rocket science. I always tell my people, this business is about running 14 great shifts a week - lunch and dinner - and make sure that you take care of every guest properly, that’s all.”
What’s Going to Happen to A&W’s Iconic Petaling Jaya Drive-In Outlet
It’s not lost on Ang that one of A&W’s most distinctive identity is its 24-hour, drive-in restaurants with party rooms where many Malaysians have had birthday parties or late night outings over root beer and waffles.
The first, and most iconic drive-in A&W restaurant in Petaling Jaya will be teared torn down by next year to make way for redevelopment. Ang says he is looking at other locations nearby for relocation.
Part of the group’s expansion plan is to have an iconic A&W outlet in every major city in Peninsular Malaysia
Part of the group’s expansion plan, he adds, is to have an iconic A&W outlet in every major city in Peninsular Malaysia.
“An A&W is drive-in, on a landed property where you can park and hold a party easily,” Ang explains. “We want to have one in Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Ipoh and Penang.”
Expansion aside, Ang is also ramping up on marketing, particularly targeting the millennials - a growing, influential segment which have less of an affinity towards A&W compared to the generations before.
“We were surprised that some of the young people we’ve interviewed - those aged 25 and below - thought we have closed shop!’ he says with a chuckle, adding that hiring young employees, whom he calls as ‘Root Beer Army’, helps the group to understand their dining preferences better.
“I think there is a lot of opportunity if we are able to bring the brand up.”
How Important Is It to Build Brand Relevance with Millennials
As somebody has been in the F&B industry for over 20 years, Ang knows first-hand the challenges in running a chain of restaurants.
“It is the fastest way to lose a million dollars,” he jokes.
A&W definitely has room to grow because as I said, people want to get to us - but they can’t before
“People don’t realise that F&B is the most competitive industry in Malaysia because everywhere you go, there is a restaurant.”
‘There is enough restaurants in Malaysia - that’s why I discourage young people to come into the restaurant business. Because if you are opening one or two outlets, the overhead costs are too high and to build a new brand is quite tough.”
He is, however, optimistic of A&W, having established its brand in Malaysia for 56 years.
“The big chains will continue to be the main players,” says Ang. “A&W definitely has room to grow because as I said, people want to get to us - but they can’t before.”
“As long as we can implement proper SOPs, monitor and enforce them - we will come up with good food. Like any other quick service restaurants, it all (comes down) to the assembly line,” he adds. “It’s all about execution.”