If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.
This month, we’re featuring longtime A&W Restaurants franchisee, Craig Van Horn, who has been in the fast-food drive-thru business since he began working at his father’s A&W restaurant in California when he was 13 years old. We spoke with Van Horn about his family business and the triumphs and challenges of being a franchisee today.
Four A&W restaurants in the Visalia, Calif.
“My folks bought our first A&W restaurant back in 1967 when I was eight years old. […] When I turned 13, I started actually working and getting a paycheck in the restaurant, and worked there until I was about 19 or 20. I then left to go work for an auto parts company and my dad offered my a position to come back because he wanted to grow the business. […] We grew the company to five stores by the ‘90s and I have been here ever since. After my father passed away in 2010, I opened up our sixth restaurant. But right now we only have four stores because we had to close two due to lack of performance.”
“When I was a kid, I was the most popular kid in school because you get free hamburgers and root beer. I had a built in job and had some freedom with scheduling because it was my family. After high school, I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with the restaurant business […] But when my dad invited me back, we ended up being business partners. He’s now passed but my mom still does some bookkeeping. And my son, Nick, has been in the business since he was 15, and he’s now 30 and going to take over the business from me one day.”
The COVID impact
“In our little community, we've never had a problem with getting and keeping good employees. Our area is a lot of farmers, and for some reason we have unemployment rate is relatively high, so we always had people lining up to work for us. But that’s changed in the last two years tremendously. We have to raise wages to keep people. Much of our core staff has been around for 20 years and they’ve stuck around but they’ve had to work their tails off in the past couple of years. […] Back in the day, we had a lot of young adults that would work for us for a long time, but nowadays, we have mostly high school kids that are only with us temporarily. […] The two restaurants I closed recently, one was our original drive-thru with car hops. COVID was the nail in the coffin for that store […] My saving grace has been the drive-thru business which has been really good.”
Secret to low turnover
“You’re not getting rich working for us, but I treat them with respect. Our general manager at one of our stores has been working for us for 40 years, since she was 16 and she’s about to retire, which will definitely be a loss for us.”
“I was remodeling one of our stores in Feb. 2020 and then the pandemic hit and I was thinking ‘how am I going to pay this loan back [for the construction costs]?’ […] But by April, the drive-thru was booming. Our sales almost doubled through drive-thru and I was blown away at how much business we were pumping out. And it was, I mean, we used to do like 40% 45% of sales through drive thru prior to pandemic. Then obviously, with closing the dining rooms. Everything was through drive thru, and our sales almost doubled through drive thru, and I just was blown away at how much we could put pump out.”
“We're in the process of looking at one store in a town about 20 minutes away. I’m in talks with the landlord right now to try and remodel it as it’s currently another restaurant. I’d want to turn it into an A&W because I’m very loyal to the company: I grew up with them.”
“For me it’s about the local atmosphere. My dad always instilled in me to get involved in our community. […] So we turned an old milk truck into a truck for serving root beer floats and we’d bring it to community events. […] I feel like A&W is local. We’re not corporate America just serving you food. We get involved.”