The Mercury continues to explore the Estevan's business community. This week we talked to Michelle Graff, who runs the local A&W along with her husband Darcy.
Michelle and Darcy Graff have been part-owners and then owners of the Estevan A&W franchise for almost 20 years now, but they started their journey at a different fast-food restaurant in Prince Albert. Darcy has been working in the restaurant business since he was 15, and Michelle started in the field when she was 19.
Working with customers was always their strong suit, but at some point, the family realized that they were ready to move forward.
“We decided one day that we wanted either to change career and own a business or try something different,” recalled Michelle Graff. “We were looking to purchase something, we wanted to work for ourselves and not be employees anymore.”
So said, so done, the wheels started turning. They contacted a few different franchises looking for the window of opportunity. The Fontaine family, who was running the A&W in Prince Albert then, helped with setting up an interview with their business manager. Then Michelle and Darcy flew out to Vancouver to get approved and shortly thereafter, for the first time in their lives, they came to Estevan.
At that time, they partnered with Marvin Symons and his family that opened the A&W franchise in the Energy City back in 1997. The mutual sympathy and similar values became a guarantee of a successful and sustainable business.
“(The Symons and the Pierson families, who were involved with the business) are very community-oriented, and very family-oriented. It was a really good fit from the very beginning. Both of the families were very welcoming to us, and they helped us out a lot in the very beginning. We had two small children and Marv had even helped us set up a babysitter,” Michelle remembered fondly.
When they arrived in Estevan their older son was going into kindergarten, and the younger one just turned three. It was a big change for the young family, but now, almost 20 years later, it sounds like there are no regrets about that big move.
“It’s just become our home. We’ve raised both of our children here … We literally packed up our family in a U-Haul vehicle. We moved here, bought a house and moved in. And a week later started working with Marv at the business,” said Michelle.
In 2005 their partner passed away, and a few years later, in 2007, the Graffs bought out the store, which they have been running themselves ever since.
The work they’ve been doing always has been rewarding. Many kids and adults became their steady customers throughout the years. The interaction with clients and staff is something Michelle has always valued the most in this business.
“It’s always changing. There is always something new, and it’s just something that we’ve always had a passion for,” said Michelle.
The Estevan community became home for the Graffs, and they see a lot of great things about the city and people here.
“The community is a really good community to do business in. Everybody thinks up and watches out for each other … We really enjoy the community, it’s a great place to raise children and do business.”
The community has always been welcoming to them, and the Graffs have also been doing all they can to ensure that their customers get the best back.
Like with any other business, the road is not always smooth. For a long time, finding staff was a challenge for A&W and they had to get into the temporary foreign worker program to get help.
“There are always different things going on. The weather (can be a challenge too),” said Michelle. “But honestly, I don’t consider them challenges. They are just a part of the day-to-day operation of the business.”
Promotions are a big and important part of the business as well. Some of them come from the national advertising committee for A&W Canada, which Michelle is a part of, but a lot of local promotions such as the currently running Estevan Mercury’s coupon book and other advertising is something that the Estevan A&W partakes on their own.
And even though running a successful business takes a lot of work, the Estevan A&W has all it takes including the professional and long-established team.
“Business gets better because you work together,” said Michelle.
The restaurant is constantly changing and improving. There are always renovations to do and innovations to adopt.
“That’s what we like about it that you got to keep active in the business,” said Michelle
A lot has changed through the years, but some things remain the same, and the A&W’s Teen Burger has always been their bestseller.
While the COVID-19 pandemic hit everybody hard, it also once again brought out the best in the Estevan business community, where even traditional competitors joined their efforts looking for best practices during the difficult times.
Michelle said that the strong lead from the head office also helped them make it through. The team and community support were very valuable too.
Along with other fast-food restaurants A&W had to adapt their hours and the entire operation. They were able to keep the drive-thru open throughout the entire time and keep some of their core staff.
“The hardest part was having to lay off staff. We’ve never had to do that before … You become a family, it’s not just employees. You become a family, you become friends with people,” said Michelle.
She added that the employees have been very committed and “awesome,” working together and helping to make it through these times.”
Now the restaurant is open again to the public with all the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s safety measures in place. The decision on the hours of operation for the dining room hasn’t been made yet, and the information is regularly updated online, at the doors and on the reader board. The drive-thru is open every day at 6 a.m.-9 p.m. and the team is always there for their customers.