LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A&W Restaurants Inc., the chain best known for its frothy root beer floats, is tapping its past for a new drive-in that serves up a big helping of nostalgia along with some new twists.
Customers at the first-of-its-kind restaurant in Clermont, Fla., near Orlando, can get out of their cars and watch a fresh batch of root beer being mixed. They can munch a Papa Burger, A&W's one-time signature sandwich and patriarch of a burger family that faded away for years.
The restaurant, the first company-owned A&W drive-in to open in decades, is seen as an important test for the 85-year-old chain.
Neil and Susan Ashton of Clermont showed up for the drive-in's grand opening to satisfy their cravings for chili dogs. "It exceeded our expectations," Neil Ashton said afterward. "The food was superb."
Now the couple won't have to drive 12 miles to a restaurant in another town to get their chili dog fix, he said. "They're going to get to know us quite well," he said of the servers at the A&W drive-in.
Louisville-based Yum Brands Inc. increasingly has paired the burger and hot dog chain with its chicken and fish brands - KFC and Long John Silver's - to appeal to families' varied tastes. Yum, which also owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, acquired A&W and Long John Silver's in 2002.
The new A&W drive-in, with a fresh design and an updated lineup of sweets that includes new milk shakes and brightly colored fruit-flavored floats, will help signal how the brand stacks up against other chains.
"We're not looking to go head-to-head with McDonald's and try to overtake them," A&W marketing director Ken Thewes said in an interview at the company's headquarters. "We're really trying to carve out a niche for ourselves."
Bobby Lance, a franchisee who owns four A&W restaurants in Florida, welcomed the test. He said drive-ins had been put on the back burner as the brand shifted its emphasis toward dine-in restaurants.
"It's time for it to come back," he said of the drive-in concept. "I don't know that it would work in all regions of the country. But it just has the nostalgia - bringing families together, eating fun food."
If the new drive-in becomes a hit, its features could spread worldwide. A&W has more than 700 stand-alone restaurants - including about 100 drive-ins - in 15 countries and territories, and is paired with sister brands in more than 540 multibrand outlets.
Multibranding, though, will remain a key focus, and the Florida test could give A&W more clout as a branding partner.
"For A&W to really play in that, it has to also come from a brand strength side," said Mike Tattersfield, president of A&W Restaurants. "So for us to be able to really build up the strengths of A&W, we needed to go back to our roots."
Drive-in restaurant giant Sonic Corp. doesn't see the A&W test as a looming threat, said a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City-based chain with nearly 3,000 restaurants.
"We've always taken the view that in many instances competition is good," said Nancy Love Robertson, Sonic's senior vice president of communications. "It keeps us all on our toes and it really results in better options for consumers."
While playing up the brand's heritage, the new A&W restaurant also offers a contemporary twist, Tattersfield said. Gone is the loudspeaker blaring pop hits. Instead, patrons can adjust their car radios to a spot on the dial that pipes in a variety of oldies and current favorites.
"We have sometimes locked it into a '50s and '60s mode, and really what our customers want is to have that reflective of today," Tattersfield said.
Another new feature is the root beer mixing room. Customers can venture from their vehicles and peer into a room where the drink is made from scratch.
"Once you taste it, you know that this root beer is unlike root beer you get in a can or a bottle," Thewes said.
Then there's the comeback of the Papa Burger - a "very indulgent" burger served with one, two or three beef patties and slathered with a new sauce, Thewes said. The Papa Burger and its menu mates were replaced in the 1980s by the generic-sounding Deluxe Burgers at most A&W restaurants.
A&W actually reintroduced the Papa Burger, along with a new-style hot dog, earlier this year at its multibrand restaurants in Dayton, Ohio. Company executives say they have been pleased with the response.
Lance said he hated to see the burger family fade away, and reviving the Papa Burger once again gives A&W a signature sandwich. Lance said he recently started offering the burger at one of his restaurants, and it has been a big seller.
"We need something that the customers can identify with," he said.
The Papa Burger won't be joined by the Mama Burger. Instead, A&W introduced Mama's special recipe chicken - which comes fried, grilled or in strips. The Baby Burger also won't return; there's a kids' meal instead.
Thewes said there's "a ton of pent-up demand for A&W," and predicted that the drive-in would tap into it as adults relive the experience of driving up, ordering food and listening to music.
"It's an experience they'll want to share with their kids," he said.