Malcolm Jolley dines at Canada’s fastest growing chain restaurant with his family. 

This time of year is when our family tries to take a ski trip. Assembled and stretching three generations, we number six, so unless it’s been a good year it’s a road trip. We try to find the nearest big hill to Toronto, and that invariably means a trip eastwards on the 401 and a day’s drive. There are all kinds of logistics involved in planning and executing the trip, and a not unimportant one is where were going to eat on the way. If we are organized and managed to hit the road at a decent hour, as we did this year, we arrive at the food oasis of Kingston too early to stop. Even if we did get to Kingston around noon, a diversion downtown for good lunch means an hour and half at least lost. So, most of the time lunch en route to the ski hill means lunch at one of the by-the-side-of-the-highway ONRoute stops.

ONRoute is a private company, a partnership of a subsidiary of the Italian catering concern Autogrill, the majority of which is owned by the Benetton family, and an investment holding company of Toronto tycoon Larry Tannenbaum. In 2009, it secured the exclusive right to build and operate all the food, gas and restroom stops on the 400 series of highways in Ontario. If you want to get off the highway quickly, gas up, feed up, have a pee, or some combination of the three, the traveling citizens of Ontario know that it’s going to have to be at an ONRoute. Now, I don’t know how ONRoute chooses its food concessions, but if the business record of Mr. Tannenbaum is any indication, profit must surely be a strong motive. One food concession that seems to be proliferating along the 401 lately is A&W, or more specifically A&W Canada, which has been wholly separate from its American originator since 1972. And at 2pm last Sunday afternoon it was an A&W Canada concession that greeted us at the ENRoute near Mallorytown, Ontario, and where my kids opted to buy their lunch. My wife and mother-in-law and I had made our own sandwiches made from left over steak from Olliffe, lettuces from Greenbelt Microgreens, and bread from Blackbird. But for fun, I asked my elsdest son to order me some fries and a root beer, for which the original A&W was famous.

A&W Canada is, I understand, one of the, if not the fastest growing chain restaurant in the country with plans to open 200 new franchises in Canada in the near future, reports the Toronto Star. They are burger and fries operation, but are marketing themselves as a different kind of fast food experience. The A&W ‘Ingredients Guarantee‘ sounds pretty good, as it’s described in their television commercials and on a dedicated website.

A&W promises, for instance, that their beef is raised without hormones or steroids, their chicken without antibiotics, their eggs laid by chickens on a 100% vegetarian diet, and that their pork also antibiotic free. My understanding is that bovine growth hormone is not permitted in Canada, so I’m not sure their beef guarantee is much of a unique selling point. But, a commitment to antibiotic free poultry and pork is encouraging, since antibiotics are necessary to fight the diseases that afflict animals that are raised at close quarters in inhumane conditions. Not feeding chickens meat also strikes me as a good idea. So, these may be baby steps, and may be being leveraged by a marketing department whose primary interest may not be in fully educating Canadians on the intricacies of the industrial food system, but every little bit counts, right?

Our order came in paper bags (why no trays?). I wasn’t crazy about the fries, which struck me as undercooked, oily and bready. My root beer was the sweetest thing I’ve had to drink for a very long time. There was a touch of sarsaparilla spice, but the big flavour note for me was just sweetness. It made me a little high, actually. So, that would have been the end of my A&W experience: an unwelcomed high-fructose corn syrup headrush… except my youngest son didn’t finish his burger. He had a Mama Burger with Cheese and I ate about a quarter of eat just to see what it was like.

At A&W Canada, according to their website, a Mama Burger with Cheese has 450 calories and consists of:

  • 100% Beef Patty
  • A&W Seasoning (Registered Trademark)
  • Sesame Seed Bun
  • Onion Slice ( I think they mean an or one onion slice?)
  • Teen Sauce (Registered Trademark – but only for the word “Teen”)
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Pickles (no quantity described, but I think there were three or four)
  • Processed Cheddar Cheese

This is, and was, pretty standard fast food burger fare, I guess. If you go to the Mama Burger with Cheese webpage (yes, there is one, I think they have to have one these days) some of these various ingredients have some scary chemical sounding components with multiple syllabus like “monocalcium phosphate” or “carboxymethylcellulose”, or “colour (contains tartrazine)”. But, while I don’t choose to cook with these things myself, phosphate (laundry detegent?) or cellulose (sawdust?) aren’t all that scary and they are enumerated at end of the ingredients list, which means there’s less of them than anything else. No, what scares me about the A&W Mama Burger with Cheese is the ingredient that I didn’t need a Health Canada mandated webpage to know was there. I tasted it and it is sugar.

Mary Antoinette told the rabble to eat cake instead of bread. More than two hundred years later, the rabble is eating cake. The third ingredient for the Mama Burger bun, after flour (refined to an inch of its life, no doubt) and water is “glucose-fructose/sugar” and I could taste it. The burger is the blandest, sweetest thing posing as a savoury thing that I have tasted for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with having cake for lunch, I suppose. If you know you’re having cake. I don’t think my smart Alec kids realized they were eating cake burgers, and I am pretty sure the million of munchers of these burgers, or similar ones at other chains, know it either. Between their sodas and burgers, they’re pretty much mainlining the stuff.

I was already on a sugar high from my (small) root beer, so to what extent my bites of Mama Burger contributed to the big crash out I had a little more than hour after lunch, I can’t say. I am glad that the insulin spike I had then came with me in the passenger seat. It was unpleasant, and a little bit scary, since there is a history of diabetes in my family.

Is this really how we want to feed ourselves, especially our children? Why does our government allow private interests to profit from public rights in ways that will ultimately drive up the our public healthcare costs? How does this make any sense?

Follow my food and wine adventures on Twitter at @malcolmjolley.