TORONTO — When Priya Dhillon visited an A&W in Windsor, Ont., in December 2022, she had an "a-ha" moment when a customer ordered his regular — two buns and two hash browns — to fashion into sandwiches.
Staff and customers at the 40 A&W locations Dhillon's family runs had been swapping beef patties for hash browns for at least a decade, but Dhillon had previously only noticed it at Greater Toronto Area locations.
The coincidence made her determined to uncover just how widespread the phenomenon was, so she queried franchisees.
"Every single franchisee was just like, 'Oh my god. We sell that ... we should have an item on the menu,'" Dhillon recalled.
"It was really then that I think head office was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is not just a Priya (Dhillon), Mississauga, Brampton thing. This is ... a Canada thing.'"
On Monday, that Canada-wide status was truly solidified when A&W Canada launched the spicy piri piri potato buddy from coast to coast.
The $3.99 sandwich consists of a hash brown garnished with red onion, lettuce, tomato and a spicy sauce and placed between two toasted buns. It is available for a limited time, along with versions made with a breaded chicken breast or a beef patty.
The hash-brown-based sandwich is not just a triumph for Dhillon's customers and staff, but also a window into current sensibilities shaping fast-food operations.
The sandwich is spicy, South Asian-inspired, meatless, affordable and derived from customers "hacking" orders — all traits chains are increasingly targeting these days.
"People are just so much more aware of what they eat, how they eat ... and people are experimenting with flavours," said Karan Suri, A&W Canada’s director of menu development.
Developing the new sandwich took months, much of it spent on the piri piri sauce, because the other elements are already A&W Canada mainstays.
With the sauce, Suri wanted to deliver heat without overpowering the sandwich, but had to ensure his ingredients mix well together and last.
That can be tough when one considers how lemon juice — often featured in North American piri piri — is usually fine the first day it's added to a sauce, but days later tastes more acidic, Suri said.
He estimates it took 11 attempts to nail the sauce, half the number it sometimes takes him.
When paired with its other elements, the sandwich bears similarities to aloo tikki, a popular South Asian dish consisting of potato patties often eaten as a snack or placed between bread.
Dhillon sees the new sandwich as an acknowledgment of the South Asian community, which accounted for 2.6 million people, or 7.1 per cent of Canada's population, in 2021.
"It's like: 'We see you, we see who you are and here's something that we think is really going to fit what you're looking for,'" Dhillon said.
"It also speaks to a demographic that potentially maybe doesn't come to A&W right now."
That South Asian demographic is often seeking food that is spicy and meatless, two factors quick-service restaurants have become more attuned to in recent years.
McDonald's, for example, has offered a hot honey crispy chicken sandwich in Canada, while Burger King has several menu items topped with an "angry sauce" that has a kick to it.
"More of my friends are open to trying spicy stuff. Spice is no longer, 'Oh no, I can't handle it,'" Suri said.
Interest in plant-based options has also risen as some reduce the amount of meat in their diets and others search for options meeting dietary, religious or cultural requirements.
A&W Canada's new sandwich is vegetable-based, but its sauce contains a small amount of egg yolk for emulsification.
Other meatless A&W Canada options include Beyond Meat burgers.
Starbucks Canada, Tim Hortons and Burger King have experimented with meatless sandwiches, too, though Suri said plant-based foods are not as in demand as they were a few years ago.
Ingredients aside, Dhillon believes many will be drawn in by the price; $3.99 is more affordable than other fast-food sandwiches.
"Everyone's money is tight right now," said Dhillon. "It doesn't matter what business you're in; things are just difficult."
She envisions the sandwich as a meal to eat with sides or an afternoon snack.
Regardless of when it's eaten, Dhillon and Suri think the public should see it as a sign that they've been heard.
"I don't know of many international companies where staff members can come up with a recipe and recommend it to corporate office and ... they'll put it on the national calendar," said Suri.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press