'My parents set up KL's first A&W outlet'

'My parents set up KL's first A&W outlet'

For those who live in the Klang Valley, the A&W drive-in restaurant is a familiar sight and a popular landmark in Petaling Jaya. However, not many know that it is the brainchild of an American couple on their honeymoon in Kuala Lumpur in 1961, writes Suzanna Pillay

"IN 1968, my mother and stepfather built the Petaling Jaya A&W drive-in, which was a 'cash cow ' from day one for us.

"We couldn't keep up with business," said Jim Phenix, an American who came to Malaysia in December 1963 with his mother and stepfather to start the A&W franchise.

"Our first store was in Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) in Kuala Lumpur.

"My family held the master franchise for Malaysia, which we had bought from A&W Restaurants Inc, Santa Monica," said Phenix, who was the store manager for the Batu Road outlet.

This Californian has been residing in Malaysia for 20 years. When his family sold the franchise in 1973 and returned to the US, Phenix settled down and married a Malaysian.

Phenix said his parents visited Kuala Lumpur in 1961 while on their honeymoon and fell in love with its charming blend of cultures and colonial influence.

"When they returned home to Las Vegas, they started talking to friends about this charming city and how they wanted to introduce something uniquely American to Kuala Lumpur."

The idea to sell hamburgers to Malaysians evolved after a visit from his stepfather's father.

"During his visit, he mentioned that his employer was considering setting up shop and selling hamburgers in Germany because thousands of American soldiers were based there at the time.

"That was the eureka moment for them: the idea to introduce A&W to Kuala Lumpur surfaced.

"My mother and stepfather decided to embark on this venture to introduce burgers and American fast food to Malaysia, and moved our family to Kuala Lumpur."

The A&W chain of fast-food restaurants is famous for its draft root beer, root beer floats and hamburgers.

Phenix said they were told they could never sell a meal with cheese to Asians, and initially, he said, there was resistance.

However, things looked up when youngsters educated overseas introduced their parents and family members to American fast food and burgers.

"Our first store was selling typical American fast food like hamburgers, hot dogs, root beer and fried chicken. We were the first restaurant to offer curly fries on our menu, which was as popular as our fried chicken and burgers.

"In the 1960s, the price of a burger was about RM1.20 (S$0.46).

"We had to rename our hamburger because of the Muslim market. That's how the Papa, Momma and Baby Burgers -- suggested by my mother -- got their names.

"She was also responsible for introducing the Coney Dog to the public. It was a hot dog with a serving of chili con carne spooned over the sausage.

"It came to be known as 'the Coney Dog' because of a mispronunciation of carne and the name stuck.

"Every Thursday was Coney Dog day at our store."

"In terms of restaurant decor, A&W wouldn't let us change the Brown and Orange colours that had been associated with their brand since 1918. But they allowed us to add chrome details and bright lights to enhance the decor.

"We also had a greeter positioned at the entrance to welcome diners."

Phenix said the big and fuzzy A&W bear that people had come to associate with the brand was as wildly popular with children then as it is now.

"It hasn't changed a bit. The first time we featured the bear in our restaurant was for a charity fair for the children of policemen.

"We brought in burgers and other A&W goodies to hand out to children and the bear came along.

"They were so enamoured with the bear that they jumped on it and brought it down. The poor worker who had donned the costume cried for help."

"When we held the franchise, we could see the growth and potential of the fast-food business in KL and opened two more shops.

"We opened our second shop in the old annexe of the AIA building in Ampang Road. Then, in 1968, we built our third store, the Petaling Jaya A&W drive-in, before we sold the business in 1973."

 

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