The First Year: Success on the St. Lawrence

For Alain Simard, weathering the first-year storm was all about confidence in himself and being close to the natural beauty of the Gaspé Peninsula in Matane, Quebec

Alain Simard doesn’t sugarcoat things when talking about those first few months as a franchisee. It can be tough. “Like a very, very heavy storm,” the French-speaking Simard explains through an interpreter. “You have so many new things to learn and manage.”

When he started as an A&W franchisee in Matane, Quebec in 2011, he worked 70 to 80 hours a week. What got him through, he thinks, was a stubborn belief in success and a chance to achieve it in his hometown.

“You need to invest all that time and energy,” he says. “If you can do it in an environment that you enjoy, where you can feel comfortable, it’s much easier.”

For the 56-year-old, that environment has always been the north shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, where he also has an A&W location in Rimouski that he opened last year.

Simard knows this gorgeous stretch along the St. Law­rence River well, especially its food. He started working in the kitchen of a Matane restaurant at 14 years old and later became the manager of a local bakery. He was also in charge of food service at nearby schools before becoming manager of the Matane A&W in 2004.

“I didn’t know that I wanted to own my own restaurant when I started at A&W,” he says. “I found out it was the perfect fit.”

With a wealth of experience working in Matane’s food service industry, Simard’s success is not a surprise. While his years of experience did play a part, he believes his competitive spirit also played a role. When he’s not at his restaurants, you’ll probably find him on a bike, out for a run, or playing badminton. When it comes to running a franchise, he compares it to coaching a hockey team.

“I run my business like I would manage a hockey club; with the right team, following the system, being together for the system,” Simard says.

Like any successful hockey team, Simard and his team quickly began racking up some serious hardware. In 2012, just one year after Simard became the owner of the restaurant, the Matane crew won A&W’s Gold Award for having one of the top three performing restaurants in Canada. Every year after that until 2016, they also won A&W’s President Award for having the best-managed restaurants in Canada, becoming the first and only fran­chise to receive the distinction in four consecutive years.

Small-town team, big league rewards

Simard is definitely proud to win those awards, but he’s prouder to win them playing for a small market team, operating franchises in places like Matane, population 15,000, and Rimouski, 49,000.

“When you’re in smaller communities like these, you have the opportunity to know the people and to be known by the people,” he says. “If you do the right thing, people will support you. They will be very faithful customers.”

The other plus, he says, is that he enjoys small-town living. He appreciates the quieter, slower way of life that Matane affords. So much so, that he would confidently raise his family in Matane. His daughters Stéphanie and Marie-Pier have followed his lead, sticking around the Gaspé to become co-franchisees with him.

Although Simard’s Matane A&W is one of the compa­ny’s top performing restaurants, he faced a new set of challenges in the opening of a second franchise. Rimous­ki’s population is three times as high as Matane’s, there were a lot more competitors, and, most importantly, there were a lot more employees for Simard to convince that his system works.

But right from those first days of opening in February 2017, he had that stubborn belief in success. He knew his team would learn the system, get behind it, and achieve their goals. “I believed in them so much that I kept tell­ing them I wanted our franchise to be the fastest quick-service restaurant in town,” he says. “I’d show them their results, the numbers. They started to see they could be the best in town. Doing that develops a feeling of pride and trust, and everyone wants to work hard and see improvements.”

Trainee becomes trainer

Simard is passing a few of his motivational tricks of the trade along to other A&W franchisees as a trainer with the company.

A&W’s eight-week franchisee training program is a mix of online and in-store training. The format includes online lessons, and in-restaurant hands-on training about specific topics like drive-thru operations, inven­tory management, and staff scheduling. The last two weeks of the program are more open-ended, giving fran­chisees the opportunity to train in whatever areas they and their trainers feel they need to improve. Later, when it’s time to open, A&W sends six of its best people to help out the franchisee four days prior to the opening and four days after. Those six people could include managers of other restaurants, corporate employees, other long-time employees and experienced franchisees like Simard.

“It’s a great thing to have that feeling of being on the same team with the training and openings, having the same level of excellence you want to achieve,” says Simard. “You don’t feel any jealousy because every­body’s equal whether you’re a franchisee or corporate employee. You are all a part of the franchise.”

The other great thing, he says, is that he gets to learn too. “One of my motivations to do this is that new fran­chisees, and new employees may have helpful ideas for me. They can be very innovative. With new openings comes new equipment or processes that I can stay up to date on.”

Future first years

Even with those extra duties as an A&W trainer, Simard is no longer working 70 or 80-hour work weeks like he did in his first years as a franchisee in Matane and Rimouski. It’s more like 40 now, he says. With all of those awards, all of that A&W experience, all of that competitiveness, a few extra hours to contemplate the future, the question remains: will he open more A&W locations? The answer is a resounding yes.

“I would like to open two, three, four more restaurants probably,” he says. “I’d be happy to have five in total. My goal is not to have many more because I want to keep the family spirit in the restaurants and help the team achieve success together. And I want to keep having fun.”

He also wants to keep building his business in smaller centres like Matane and Rimouski. “That’s the goal, because I want to be here and because I believe that if you do the right thing, you follow the system, you can be successful even if the market is very small.”

To hit that goal, he knows he’ll likely go through a few of those first-year storms almost every new franchisee experiences. But by now he also knows that a healthy dose of belief in the system and hard work will see him and his future teams through.

“The key bit of advice I give to new franchisees is that while you may have doubts about making the right deci­sion, if you believe in your success, you will see the sun coming back quite quickly after the storm passes. You will need lots of discipline, perseverance and patience to achieve that, but you’ll see — it will be worth it.”


By Jordan Whitehouse