Canadian burger chain A+W’s next move to distinguish its menu in a crowded quick-service market will be a connection to the regenerative ag movement, as it sets itself up with an all-Canadian and all-grass-fed beef supply.
The Vancouver-based chain, which includes almost 1,000 restaurants across Canada, announced Monday it’s “making a commitment to exclusively source and serve 100 percent Canadian grass-fed and -finished beef in its restaurants.”
The chain’s beef supply became the flashpoint of its new ingredient sourcing campaign in 2013 when it first declared all burgers it sells “are now made with beef that has been raised without any added steroids or hormones and contains no added preservatives or additives.”
The “Better Beef” campaign infuriated some Canadian ranchers and their supporters, many of whom have voiced displeasure across social media ever since.
The 2013 policy required A+W to start importing some of its beef from the U.S. and elsewhere, rather than buy strictly Canadian. Some critics were also concerned A+W’s campaign could mislead consumers about the safety or quality of Canada’s overall beef supply.
But the ingredients sourcing campaign — which has also since seen A+W tighten and promote its requirements for cheese, chicken, pork, eggs, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, root beer and coffee — has also indisputably worked.
The chain since 2013 has booked seven straight years of year-over-year same-store sales growth, and has seen a net expansion of over 200 stores.
Monday’s announcement won’t take effect at all restaurants immediately. Susan Senecal, CEO for A+W Food Services of Canada, said the company currently expects to begin its rollout at the end of May.
Asked in an interview how long the company expects the transition to 100 per cent Canadian grass-fed beef to take, she said “we know that we’re buying millions more pounds of Canadian beef this year over other previous years, but what we’re seeing is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, so while we thought that the timeline might be longer rather than shorter, it feels like maybe it’ll accelerate and go faster than we think.”
A+W said it’s “working closely with the Canadian beef industry” on the move, recruiting packers including Cargill, JBS Canada, Meyer Canada, Beretta Farms and others in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, to “help grow the market for grass-fed beef in Canada.”
A+W described grass-fed as “an emerging market (and) wants to support it by paying a premium for grass-fed beef.”
The company said on its website that it wants to serve grass-fed and grass-finished beef from cattle that “are raised on a grass and forage diet and have access to pasture throughout as much of the year as possible.”
The beef would also continue to come from cattle that are “raised without the use of artificial growth hormones” and that “are only treated with antibiotics when required for therapeutic reasons.”
The chain will be working “with many of our current suppliers” on a grass-fed, grass-finished beef supply, but will “also be able to expand our relationships to others who currently either just starting or transitioning their programs” to grass-fed, Senecal said.
The company, she said, has been working on the idea of a grass-fed beef supply for “a number of years now” as the chain has considered its role as a Canadian company and ways in which it can support “the efforts of a lot of ranchers who are such great stewards and environmentalists.”
In that, she said, the company is well suited to provide “a ready market and a path to market for operators who are working with the grass-fed beef idea.”
On a visit to Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, she said, company officials saw “a lot of interest among ranchers who in many cases were using a lot of these practices, but wanted a little bit more information or wanted a few more ideas about networks or places that they could call.”
Furthermore, she said, while working within the company’s current beef supply requirements, “many of our partners have said ‘Just knowing that you’re always out there buying as much as we can produce really provides incentive for us to continue with these practices, and expand our growth.’”
On the continuing education end, A+W noted it’s also partnering with universities and NGOs “to support ongoing efforts to provide ranchers with useful tools and resources to recognize their regenerative agriculture contributions.”
To that end, the company said it has already signed on as a sponsor for Regeneration Canada’s Living Soils Symposium next week in Montreal, and for a ‘Grasslands Conservation Incentives’ project being developed by Birds Canada.
As for the end product itself, Senecal said the company believes “that this beef profile will fit perfectly with our recipes.”
Among the packers who have signed on to supply grass-fed beef to the chain, Cargill is “able to meet our customer’s needs through existing resources and operations in our Canadian processing facilities” without any alterations required at its existing plants, a spokesperson said via email.