If you got a trumpet, get on your feet
|Alberta Advantage||Dec 19, 2019|
Another week, another crushing loss by a major leftist movement. There is some alternate dimension where Jeremy Corbyn has 450 seats in the U.K. and City of London financial vampires are drinking whole bottles of Imodium on private c-suite toilets. But we live in hell, Earth 666, and we don’t have the luxury of bankers with fear-induced colon catastrophe. Life goes on. It’s not different fights, it’s just one fight, over and over. Next round, please.
Approach any Canadian city or town during dusk, during a colder season, when the trees are bare. Squint and make out the hulking shapes of the one-storey strip malls, chain restaurants cast adrift in parking lots, berms that delineate asphalt from bits of dried grass.
The signs are familiar: there’s a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, a Tims… in the distance, there’s a RONA and Wal-Mart. Where are you? Is this Victoria, or Montreal? Lloydminster or Bedford? It all looks the same. But hey, you’re getting peckish and there’s something less American, less gigantic-seeming about A&W, and a Buddy Burger would hit the spot.
Step inside and everything in A&W is warm and friendly. From the orange and brown logos and interiors - reminiscent of a relative’s comfy living room - to the names of the menu items, the flatscreen videos where “good food makes good food” from farm to table, and the booklets of tidily tallied nutrition facts, the ubiquitous features are reassuring.
With over 950 A&W restaurants in Canada (the first opened in Winnipeg in 1956), A&W has about a third as many locations as Tim Hortons cross-country, but more cultural capital. The mash-up of post-war nostalgia with a forward-looking “Change” campaign appeals to pretty much every age group, and the food is actually about as good as promised.
The premiere offering is the burger range, or the Burger Family. Originally introduced by A&W in the U.S. in the early 1960s, the Family was shelved in the mid-’80s and then came back in the late ‘90s, without much having changed. The main members are Baby, Teen, Mama, Papa, and Grandpa, with their relative size connoting their meat content in ounces. “Visiting” family members are Uncle and Grandma (limited time availability) whereas it’s unclear how permanent items Buddy and Mozza fit into the heteronomative structure.
The Burger Family is a ready example of how our society gives human values to commodities. Meted-out portions of bread, beef, and vegetables don’t have biological or emotional relationships to one another, and yet these relationships don’t require explanation to customers.
That said, the Burger Family exists on a level of abstraction that can’t quite sell itself. In the past, the intermediary-salesman role was filled most often by the Great Root Bear (a 1975 A&W Canada invention, with the famous tuba theme co-authored by B.C. composer Robert Buckley) and then in the late ‘90s, Drew Carey. Since 2001, Canadians have known actor Allen Lulu as the “A&W Guy”, and he continues to appear in new ads for the company.
Officially, Lulu isn’t represented as anyone but himself: someone enthusiastic about A&W and its social entrepreneur aspects (non-use of hormones and steroids in meat, for instance). The actor’s website says that he’s interviewed over 1000 Canadians in funny “vignette style” commercials. Yet his costume - short-sleeve blouse, tie, and nametag - is that of a mid-level employee: a friendly manager of capital.
With fast food brands edgily “beefing” on Twitter and trying to one-up each other with exclusive or artisanal items, the consistent A&W has a sense of ordinary luxury to it. (Even the Beyond Meat burger - which angered beef lobby chuds by demonstrating that veggie burgers are popular - seems ordinary and nutritionally dubious enough to jive with the rest of the menu.)
It’s just nice to sit down to a warm meal that costs less than $10 found in a convenient location.
Fast food is such a hallmark of life in a capitalist society that alternative visions of the future often bypass the concept all together. People most like to imagine unhurried, scratch-cooked family suppers and vibrant communal gatherings, opting not to be reminded of their own frequently necessary but unsatisfactory drive-through calorie consumption.
Nonetheless, convenience food appears in contexts outside corporate America. These days in Russia, nostalgic cravings for the post-war era are met with Soviet-style canteens. Most of the canteens operating today are idealized throwbacks in the vein of Americana diners, which approximate the past with cleaner spaces (one hopes) and knowing twists on staple dishes. But unlike U.S. diners, Soviet canteens and cafeterias emerged out of public discussions and efforts to liberate people (especially women) from “kitchen slavery” in the 1920s and after. Centralized food production made sense to Soviet leaders and planners throughout the country’s history.
Soviet canteens and cafeterias were also actual public spaces, differing from the “open to the public” but privately-owned spaces that restaurants and malls represent today. Places like McDonald’s and A&W are sometimes given credit for functioning as community hubs, but truly, it’s a sad situation in Canadian cities that on, say, weekend evenings - when libraries and community centres are closed and when it’s too cold to sit outside (half to two-thirds of the year, depending) - there’s nowhere else to work, rest, and socialize that doesn’t have a price of entry steeper than a $2 coffee.
While people with roommates or a simple desire to not just sit in their houses during winter appreciate fast food joints’ extensive hours, those working “McJobs” aren’t treated much better than in decades past. Contrasting A&W’s “Change” campaign is the news that the company keeps a secret watch list of franchises with a high risk of unionizing. (The members associations who form LabourWatch represent most fast-food restaurant owners/chains in Canada.)
While there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, it’s a shame and an injustice that “socially conscious” A&W treats its workers as stereotypically poorly as other fast food restaurants do, and sometimes even worse. The three categories or subheadings of www.aw.ca/change are “Our Food”, “Our Planet”, and “Our Community” - noticeably absent is “Our Workers” (or even neutral terms like Our People or Our Team). Friendly-sounding language no doubt features in employee materials, but as usual, labour is the secret ingredient of the operation, deemed by executives to be of little concern to customers.
You’re almost done. The Buddy Burger’s eaten, and you fold the compostable wrapper in half and smile at its wholesome “everybody pitching in” illustration. As you stand up to find the waste sorting centre, the front door opens: a fresh round of customers enters and with them, pockets of cold winter air. You hope the new folks enjoy their food, and think maybe in the future, it’s a little healthier, the (unionized) workers get paid a lot more, the space is public, and the A&W Guy is telling you all about it.
-Karen, Team Advantage
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