The VP of food safety, animal welfare and environment wants to keep moving the fast-food chain forward
1. You’re currently A&W Canada’s strategy manager and vice president, food safety, animal welfare and environment. Can you take me through the Coles Notes of your career?
Well, I’m kind of old, so that’s going to take awhile. I was born in the U.K, but have been in Canada since I was a kid. Most of my career has been in environment and sustainability—I have a PhD in sustainable agriculture [from UBC]. It surprisingly took until I got to A&W to actually use my whole education. I did work before in sustainability but in different fields—consumer products, personal care products, cellphones, you name it. The agriculture, animal welfare, food safety, environment sides, bringing them all together, this was the first job that did it all for me.
2. One of A&W's bigger projects of late is the reusable cup program designed to reduce the use of single cups that you piloted in Vancouver in September 2021. According to the company, you’ve saved 23,000 cups. What was the discussion of the initiative like in the beginning? Were there doubts that it could work?
Yes, there were doubts and challenges in the beginning. We spent a lot of time—and partnered with Coca-Cola—to create a cup and a program that people wanted to use. We’re trying to remove that convenience barrier for quick service guests. People have tried exchangeable cup programs or bring your own mug programs for many years with limited uptake. But newer generations like millennials and Gen Z are even more interested in environmental issues and zero waste. The timing felt right for us to up our game in that space.
3. Vancouver City Council voted to get rid of the 25-cent cup fee. Will that development hinder the reusable cup program?
I expect to see a bit of drop-off. But I do think most of the guests that participated In the program really believe in it and are happy to have it available to them and be able to conveniently use the cups. So those people are going to stay. As we expand the program, we’ll market It, promote it more. In the short term, a small decline. Over time, I expect we’ll see it increase again.
4. A&W was the first national restaurant chain to bring Beyond Meat to Canada. How much competition do you face in trying to be the first to start these innovative programs and what’s next?
A lot. In theory, everyone is trying to do what’s right. But it’s part of who we are as a brand, and how we approach our decision making. Many years ago we started with glass and ceramic mugs, and we kept those. Reusable cups hit a setback during COVID. So as guests move online and to delivery and takeout, how do we extend reusable packaging to them? We’re seeing a trend in the opposite direction, where there’s more and more disposable packaging being used because people aren’t sitting in restaurants.
Single-use cups are going to be our focus this year, but another thing we’re doing is working on reducing food waste. That’s going to be another initiative we work on this year.
5. In terms of customers adopting the reusable program, is most of that people coming to the window and refilling their cup?
It’s a mix. There’s some of it’s that, and some people coming to pick up their orders. Another demographic is older people who come and sit inside or go for a walk.
And like I said, we’re seeing Gen Z and millennials really starting to demand action from businesses and choosing where to spend their dollars based on what the business is doing. I think there’s consumer demand for it. We’ve got young people and older people, now we need to get that middle ground.
This interview has been edited and condensed.