Chain Battling Canada’s Most Sinister Disease One Burger At A Time

By Kim Hughes 8/30/12 |

Can a simple hamburger help combat multiple sclerosis, the most common neurological disease of young adults aged 15 to 40 in Canada? Can a fridge magnet offer support to the three new people who are daily diagnosed with MS, the majority of them women?

Sadly the answer is no. But over the past four years, sales of same have proven spectacularly successful in raising big cash for seeking a cure while assisting those suddenly and cruelly afflicted with MS’s hallmark loss of balance, impaired speech, extreme fatigue, double vision and paralysis.

Enter the Cruisin’ for a Cause campaign helmed by sprawling burger-and-root beer chain A&W. During its annual one-day nationwide event – which plays on the company’s legacy as a drive-in spot, ergo the name - a dollar from every Teen Burger sold is donated to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, which assists people battling the disease while funding critical research.

A&W customers can also purchase $1 paper cutouts, $2 deluxe fridge magnets or donate via in-store boxes or online. And that small change adds up fast when gathered across the chain’s 750 coast-to-coast locations.  Since Cruisin’ for a Cause launched in 2009, A&W Canada has raised more than $3.3 million for the MS Society.

“For many of us here, it’s our favourite day of the year. And we are very committed to this going forward,” offers Paul Hollands, president and CEO of A&W Food Services of Canada Inc., tells Samaritanmag.

The 2012 event, held on August 23 at A&W restaurants from Newfoundland to B.C., netted a staggering $1.25 million, a record haul. Two restaurants, one in Grand Prairie, Alta. and one in St. John’s, N.L. each raised more than $17,000 while four others – in Regina, Sask., Acheson, Alta., and two in Fort McMurray, Alta. – raised more than $11,000 each.

That’s a lot of burgers and fridge magnets and, crucially, much richer coffers for the MS Society.

“Honestly, we get so much feedback from people who have MS and say to us, ‘Thank you for doing this. It really makes me feel special that someone cares.’ And not just A&W per se but people caring enough to do something that helps this cause. That’s remarkable,’” says Hollands, who divided his Cruisin’ for a Cause day between Windsor, Regina, Red Deer and Vancouver. 

“People with MS come out in teams, they bring their friends, man information booths set up on site, visit with our staff and help them understand what a difference they’re making. So they’re cheerleaders.”

Ironically, as Hollands tells Samaritanmag from his Vancouver office, the sheer pervasiveness of MS in Canada is what led to its being chosen as the cause the company elected to collectively back, building on a corporate social responsibility infrastructure already in place on a more individual store-by-store basis.

Virtually all of the various franchisees in the chain — the second largest in Canada based both of sales and number of bricks and mortar outlets — have some connection to someone struggling with the disease, says Holland.

“And nobody has the answer for why the incidence rate here is so high. That’s one of the leading areas of research. MS is practically unknown in the southern hemisphere, and the further north you get, the higher the prevalence. But because it’s so prevalent here, it made MS a much easier sell, if you will, for our franchisees across the country because so many people know someone who is living with this disease and they see what a difference the MS Society makes.”

A&W in Canada started in 1956 and became separate from the U.S. in the early 60s. The Canadian company is actually unrelated to A&Ws in the rest of the world, says Hollands, “which is an usual situation.”

A franchise business in Canada, with over 700 locations from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, all have some level of community involvement.

“Whether it’s local community groups, kid’s teams, they have all found their own niche that serves the health and vibrancy of their communities,” Hollands says.

“About five years ago, through conversations with our franchisees, we realized we could really make a bigger difference in the community as a whole — and leverage the strength of the whole chain — if everybody worked together. There was a real will among both the franchisees and us, the franchisor, to do that.

“And we felt that because we are a retail brand, we have a unique opportunity to really engage these communities, so we wanted to find a cause that was keenly felt in Canada and where we could make a real difference given our size.”

He calls the fundraiser more “a campaign” highlighting MS and raising money for the cause. Some of the A&Ws do that year-round.

“Some are planning next year’s campaign, like, today,” Hollands adds. “So Cruisin’ for a Cause is the one day we really try to shine a light on this thing and galvanize our own people, our consumers, the media and the MS Society.


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