Pictured: my teen nephew and non-teen child at our most frequented A&W.
It is New Year’s Eve, and in theory tomorrow represents fresh starts and opportunity and the endless possibility of an unsullied calendar. Tomorrow. Tomorrow is for hope. Today is for eating too much cheese and drinking too much wine and one last, little complaint that possibly falls into the “unexamined personal issue” territory I clearly spend a lot of time in.
A&W Canada changed the cheese on its breakfast sandwiches and I am upset.
A&W Canada and A&W in the US are different. They share a history, but they split into distinct entities in 1972 and since then the menus have deviated to appeal to their respective markets. And while A&W in the US is limping, the Canadian arm of the Burger Family stayed together and things have never been better for the brand. In Canada, nostalgia plays a significant factor in A&W’s ongoing success; A&W is a family place, and families have been going to A&Ws in Canada since 1956, when the first one opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In 2012, I was unemployed for a stretch, having been laid off on maternity leave. My severance ran out, and I started temping in the membership office of a local union, a place that could easily have been a figment of David Lynch’s imagination. I was not well-suited to the role, because I am impatient and take work very personally and there was not enough to do. I used to think I was a laid-back, fun person but it turns out I am neither of those things. Nick realized this before I did, but for him it was already too late.
I applied to a job I didn’t know anything about on a headhunter’s website, and she invited me to her office and I performed a series of tests before she revealed that the role I had applied to was a social media manager position at the head office of a local fast food company. I was to present to the Lonsdale Quay-adjacent corporate headquarters of A&W Canada for a screening interview with their HR manager. We talked about restaurants, food blogs, and when I left she handed me her card which had a coupon for a free burger attached.
I made it through to the next round of interviews, which guaranteed me at least another free burger.
In the first interview, the strap on my La Senza bra broke. It was an ugly padded thing, shiny leopard print and black lace, but it was the only bra I had at the time that wasn’t a nursing bra or a sports bra, and I am a professional? The first interview was with a kind, polished woman who looked like the type of adult to whom this kind of thing would never happen. The left cup slid down one side of my torso like a turtle on a mudslide as I answered questions about my core competencies with one arm crossed awkwardly across my chest.
Another two interviews would follow, for a total of five hours with 50 per cent of a critical undergarment in peril.
In the early 90s, we moved to a new neighbourhood with an A&W that was decorated in a way that acknowledged the chain’s history – photos of women in pin curls and hot pants on roller skates holding trays filled with mugs of cold root beer, photos of old cars and the Root Bear mascot, retro A&W ads for whole families of hamburgers printed as if on newsprint and displayed in metal frames – while also suggesting a future that was so bright it sparkled. The ceiling was painted with white glitter and hung with neon Lucite airplanes. It wasn’t the eighties anymore, it seemed to say. Not like that clown’s place down the road, where everything was still brown and beige.
We were an A&W family, but usually just for breakfast. I am sure we went there for dinner; I remember onion rings, at times, and the odd Mozza Burger, and watching Bryan Adams videos over my parents’ shoulders on grainy screens that alternated between Much Music and the news. When I was thirteen, my friends and I would hang out on the patio after school, watching the older boys smoking and jamming gum into the coin slot of the payphone while our skinniest friend drank the Styrofoam cups of gravy that she ordered with her fries.
In the morning at A&W, you can get a plate of bacon and eggs and toast just like any greasy diner anywhere, but the price is better, and so my parents go there almost weekly.
I tried to convey this in my second interview with a man about my dad’s age, who had been with the company for more decades than I had been alive. I wanted him to know I would embody the brand and take it very personally like I do just about everything and that together we would be unstoppable. I told him I know all about Twitter. I told him about my parents, who he would perhaps have things in common with.
“They started going to the one in Coquitlam because it was the best A&W,” I told him, “and now, ten years later, they still go because of the community they’ve found in the people who work there and the people who get breakfast together every weekend.”
“Isn’t that something,” he said. I don’t know if he believed me, because it sounds a little bit like a story even now.
The whole process took most of a day, and though the receptionist – a warm woman with a soft face in a green dress – handed me several handfuls of root beer-flavoured hard candies I was spent, physically and emotionally. The trauma of the bra issue and the pressure of being “on” for five hours and three very successful grown-ups who I assumed I’d never be like and who couldn’t possibly have understood the depth of my despair or lack of credit left to pay for parking left me both hopeful and sad. When I went home to Nick and the baby that night, I told them I didn’t want to talk about my day.
Before the interview, the headhunter told me I was one of two candidates selected for the interview endurance run.
I was getting lunch at a food truck with my friend James on a day I called in sick to my temp job when I got a call that said they decided not to go with either candidate. I didn’t have a job, but I did have four more free burger vouchers, which I redeemed in the food court at the mall near the Lynchian temp job I began to feel doomed to.
In recent years, A&W Canada has been working on changing its brand to reflect a popular preference for Canadian beef and wholesome ingredients. This is fine. Those things are good. Its food is notably different from other local fast food burger places; in his most recent special, Silent but Deadly, Kevin Smith even sings A&W Canada’s praises, describing buying Buddy Burgers and Teen Burgers for the cast of Super Girl. A&W is good. It’s Canadian. It’s an important part of my family’s lives and history.
The Bacon & Egger is/was arguably the greatest fast food breakfast (“arguably” because I will argue with you about it until you give up and move on). And my complaint is so petty I should feel embarrassed, but the new cheese on the Bacon & Egger is so wrong that I almost don’t know if the problem is, as mentioned, from my “unexamined personal issue” cache or if I really, truly am this upset. The taste is all wrong. A fast-food breakfast is good because the slice of processed cheese unites the disparate textures of bun, fried egg, and bacon like a condiment, adding a unifying component that makes the whole thing make sense. If I wanted real cheese on my breakfast sandwich, I’d make that breakfast sandwich at home.
As we close the door on another year and step into 2019, I am ready to accept that there are things I cannot change, even as I hope for something better for us all. Maybe the cheese represents something bigger, or maybe I am just coming into my orneriness.
In 2019, may we all have more productive, more satisfying things to complain about, and the ability to move on from whatever we cannot sustain.
In 2019, I wish you good cheese.