Cactus Restaurants Wins Company of the Year, Western Canada

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Volume 47, Number 9

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ho knew a surfing vacation could eventually lead to the birth of a brand, but that was the case for the Vancouver-based Cactus Club Cafe. “I’d never been to Hawaii before, so I fell in love with it and fell in love with surfing there; it’s been a life-long passion of mine ever since,” says Richard Jaffray, Cactus Restaurants Ltd., president and founder.

The 26-year-old company was born just a few years after the trip, and after Jaffray loaded up his ‘74 Dodge Dart and left Calgary to make a new life in Vancouver. Just in his late teens, the budding engineer and part-time waiter quit school and headed to Canada’s West Coast to pursue business in 1984, eventually opening Café Cucamonga in 1986, with co-founder Scott Morison. “It was a little 900-sq.-ft. café that was pretty crazy — it was open quite late at night, serving ice cream, sandwiches and salads.” And, it kept Jaffray near the water to feed his love for surfing.

But, the entrepreneur and his partner wanted more. They sold Café Cucamonga for an undisclosed amount in 1988 and started a new venture (Morison left the company in 2004). “The idea of doing Cactus Club was about doing something on a bigger scale where it had more growth opportunity,” explains Jaffray. “My first restaurant … did great, but if I left the building it was going to be hard to build another one.”

It was time for kaizen. The Japanese business term — which translates to “continuous improvement,” is a philosophy followed at Cactus Restaurants Ltd. “Cactus Club has evolved, and it’s not something that’s [just] happened — we didn’t just decide one year to completely revolutionize the business,” explains the president. “It’s something we’ve been doing ever since [we opened]. And, that original restaurant in North Vancouver that’s now over 26 years in business is having its best year, so we’re proud we’ve been able to continually improve.”

Today, the 26-unit “casual, fine-dining” chain offers house-made globally inspired dishes served in a “relaxed, unpretentious” atmosphere. All corporately owned (aside from some joint-venture units with senior management), each location offers approximately 200 interior seats and up to 100 patio seats in a 6,500-sq.-ft. footprint created using an in-house design team and external architects.

Grassroots ideas are part of the chain’s DNA, so it makes sense that it was a founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise conservation program in 2005; it was also involved in the city’s Green Table Network, which acknowledges foodservice operators who improve their environmental performance while serving quality food.

The private company does not release sales numbers, but 2014 follows a year of great growth. “We came off some pretty big openings in the marketplace in the last 12 months,” says Jaffray, during a morning call from Vancouver in September. “We opened the Coal Harbour location downtown on the waterfront at Jack Poole Plaza [in Vancouver]. [And] we opened a flagship suburban location in Langley, [B.C.] and in Edmonton.”

This fall, the company opened its first Saskatchewan unit in downtown Saskatoon. And, next year, the concept debuts in Ontario with a two-level unit with a rooftop patio slated to open in Toronto’s First Canadian Place.

The move east into Ontario and Saskatchewan is slow and deliberate. “We made a conscious decision that we wanted to bring Cactus Club to the Toronto market and to expand further in the Prairies and Saskatchewan,” says Jaffray. “[For us] 2014 was not only [about] getting ourselves positioned for this big expansion coming up in two new provinces but also making sure we maintained the level of success at these new locations we just opened.”

That success was affirmed this year at Vancouver magazine’s Annual Restaurant Awards. Rob Feenie, executive chef, remembers it well. “Cactus was recognized for the seventh year in a row for Best Casual Chain; trust me it’s not an easy thing to win. But, the one we were really proud of was we beat David Hawksworth for Best Downtown restaurant for Coal Harbour.” He adds: “It is one of the most beautiful restaurants. It’s unbelievable. And, we as a team, worked really hard.”

The brand’s team comprises approximately 3,000 employees, including service director Sebastien Le Goff, 500 chefs and 50 Red Seal chefs. The culinary crew is led by Feenie, who joined the chain in 2008 and continues to introduce new techniques and recipes to raise expectations. This year, menu innovations included the Tuna Sushi Cone with spicy Ocean Wise albacore, hand-rolled with avocado, cucumber, pickled ginger, tempura, micro cilantro, green onion and a soy paper wrapper ($5); Ceviche with Lois Lake steelhead, sustainably harvested prawns, red onions, Thai basil, mint, cilantro and nuoc cham ($14.50); as well as Bengal Chicken Curry with garam masala, tomatoes, cream, cauliflower, almond coconut basmati rice and naan ($17.75). The Indian dish was a departure from Feenie’s French, Italian and Japanese specialties, and it gave the Iron Chef America champion a chance to learn and teach a new cooking style.

Training and development is ongoing in the Cactus Club kitchens, and Feenie brings the culinary brigade together to cook outside their regular environment, too. “I don’t get to be in all the stores at the same time, so to be in an environment where I have all the chefs in the same room; it’s something we get to do [for them], and it’s a lot of fun,” says the toque who takes his chefs and sous chefs to a local school to practise. But, the chefs’ commitment runs deeper. “What I love is, on their own social time, they’re cooking for each other. It’s fantastic,” says Feenie.

Quality food is integral to the company fabric, having been home to a large contingent of Red Seal chefs before Feenie came aboard. “We were investing in our kitchen partners’ education and our sous chefs’ education, and that’s something that’s been a part of our culture all along,” says Jaffray, who goes on to talk about Cactus University where management also has a chance to learn, studying various business topics taught by external instructors, while working towards a “degree.” Meanwhile, a mentorship program allows young managers to connect with senior management and executives for approximately three to six months.

Perhaps it’s that dedication to employee growth that led to the brand being named a platinum club member of Canada’s Best Managed Companies in 2014, following seven consecutive years on the iconic list that recognizes companies with revenues of more than $10 million, which demonstrate business performance and sustained growth. “This recognition is a reflection of our team’s ongoing commitment to the growth of our business, the development of our people and the involvement in our community,” says Jaffray who works with staff to create annual business plans.

Indeed, giving back to the community has been a part of the chain’s mandate for years, having supported organizations such as the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver, the Culinary Arts Program at Vancouver’s Templeton Secondary School and Make-A-Wish B.C. & Yukon.

Jaffray got involved with Make-A-Wish 14 years ago after an employee shared her passion for the organization. This year, during the chain’s annual Sweet Dreams Dessert Month in April, when $1 from every dessert sale was donated to the cause locally, Cactus aimed to raise $7,500. And, this year it spent approximately $4,000 in gift cards to host Bon Voyage dinners (or lunches) for families before they took a Wish trip. “It’s funny, we can send a family to Paris to go up The Eiffel Tower, and when we get the thank-you photos and the thank-you letters, they always include how special they were treated at Cactus Club,” says Ross Hetherington, CEO, Make-a-Wish B.C. & Yukon, explaining how the kids are greeted by name, given high fives, kitchen tours and more.

With all that he’s accomplished, it’s little surprise the Cactus Club’s 50-year-old leader was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Vancouver magazine’s 25th Annual Restaurant Awards this past spring. “It was a tremendous honour, and I was very elated,” Jaffray recalls with a laugh. He adds: “[But] I’m not done yet.” And, as the company continues its expansion in Toronto, Calgary and Kelowna, it’s clear the detail-oriented thinker is waiting to lead the company through the next big wave, paddling toward it slowly, while adjusting to the water’s kaizen.

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