Kevin Murphy, owner of the Murphy Group of Restaurants charts his own course for success on Prince Edward Island
Company of The Year, Regional, Eastern Canada
It’s no secret the last two years have translated to a glaring red mark on the financial statements of most businesses. Well, almost every business. Defying all odds — and statistics disseminated on solemn newscasts for two years — Prince Edward Island’s Murphy Group of Restaurants came out of the slump with increased sales, a positive outlook for the future and the renewed loyalty of locals and tourists who found something special about the company’s take on homey charm.
Comprised of 13 different restaurants on the Island (11 in Charlottetown alone), including casual chain eatries, upscale restos and two hotels, The Murphy Group was built with ambitious versatility and dedication to preserving a unique, down-home appeal. When it comes to the company’s financial statements, the news is good: in 2009, sales were up six per cent, and, in 2010, sales climbed another 4.5 per cent. “Another big accomplishment for us was the improvement of gross profit by three per cent,” explains owner, Kevin Murphy. It seems like a shocking feat in the current financial climate, so how did it happen?
“Well, there are two things,” begins Murphy. “The Maritime economy doesn’t have big ups and downs, so that protects us a bit from the big lows, but we also don’t get the big highs.” He attributes the second cause to the human side of the business. “[It’s] the people and way of life,” continues the owner. “[The Island] is a little different, and visitors always comment on how everyone is so friendly.”
It’s easy to credit the economic steadiness to the warmth of P.E.I. hospitality, but Murphy hasn’t rested on company laurels over the past couple of years. “We closed some restaurants by restructuring and figured out how to do more with less. We had to look at operations and see if it was worth staying open or re-branding and renovating.
We closed a Mike’s Restaurant and renovated Dooly’s, Fishbones Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill, and Pat and Willy’s Cantina — all in Charlottetown.” But, Murphy also kept his employees in mind during the tough decisions. “Anytime there’s uncertainty, it’s important to communicate that our people will beprotected, that we can move staff to another location if a [restaurant] is closed,” he explains.
Murphy recently named chef Ross Munro culinary director of the restaurants in an effort to give each eatery a more refined edge with a focus on producing more sophisticated cuisine. Munro is charged with the task of constructing new menus, as well as immersing himself in interactive training events such as taking chefs to farms for educational “field trips.” He’s also head chef at Charlottetown’s Murphy’s Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, where he provides diners with upscale fare such as the pan-seared, spiced magret duck breast ($32) and pan-roasted chicken cordon bleu ($28) as well as specialty steaks, like the Sim’s surf & turf ($48), the bacon-wrapped Manhattan ($32) and grilled pepper variety ($34).
“Earlier this fall, Munro had a 48-ounce bone in rib for two people on special,” boasts Murphy, who added that the special was extremely popular. “He has also done some great work with the tenderloin in terms of special house rubs, and the strip loin is served by the ounce. [He’s served meat] as large as a 26-ounce steak.”
Speaking of steak, Murphy’s Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster Bar recently partnered with the Maritime-based Atlantic Beef Plant. The merger means the Murphy Group can provide diners with highgrade, local cuisine that benefits Island farmers and suppliers. The company has since worked with the plant to devise a Murphy Group-specific program to ensure meats served are consistently top-notch. If the partnership progresses well, the plant could supply other Murphy establishments in the near future.
On the beverage side of the business, the Gahan Brewery, a popular Charlottetown hotspot connected to the Gahan House pub, introduced a new bottled product this year, which is set to be sold in P.E.I. liquor stores. It serves as the city’s only microbrewery, a treat for both locals and tourists who can also enjoy such classic comfort fare as Brown Bag fish and chips ($11.49), curry butter chicken ($11.99) and Cajun chicken penne ($12.99) at the pub next door.
Murphy understands the needs of tourists and locals alike. He serves as a chairman on the province’s Tourism Advisory Council, as a board member of Holland College’s Culinary Institute and as a member of the local Chamber of Commerce. He’s certainly familiar with the inner workings of the province and can identify — and fulfill — a unique need among employees.
“Loyalty comes back in spades,” says Murphy, pointing to the impact of offering employees bursaries and scholarship opportunities. “We help them develop their career path.” The Murphy Group offers five $1,000 bursaries a year to employees who want to further their education, a perk Murphy is quick to promote. “We work with them on a human level and mentor them to get more education. It opens up doors.”
“Kevin is always trying to get the staff to further their education,” says Mandy Crane, general manager of The Gahan House Pub and Brewery. Better yet, many former employees return to the Murphy restaurant of their youth, after taking time on their own to become a sommelier, for example.
Along with enhancing the upward mobility opportunities for employees, improving the overall community environment remains paramount. “Involvement and commitment in our industry has always been there,” says Murphy. “When you give to the community, the community recognizes that, and it’s a part of your success.”
Restaurant staff regularly raises money for local causes and national charities such as The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and The Lung Association. In fact, Murphy’s own East Side Mario’s (along with other participating East Side restos), recently sponsored CIBC’s annual Run for the Cure.
But, it’s not just the Group’s commitment to fundraisers and local institutions that stands out, it’s the core belief that happy employees draw loyal customers. “Everyone is connected on the Island,” says Gahan House’s Crane. “We’ve developed relationships with other restaurants, and we offer seminars and training opportunities, as well as functions that bring staff from different places together. I’ve been in the [foodservice] industry for 15 years, and this is different from anything else.”
Murphy aims to be a tangible presence in his operation, not an elusive figurehead who rarely leaves the boardroom. “When the owner cares, it trickles down,” says Gahan’s Crane. “On my first shift six years ago, I waited on his table and he introduced himself. He gets to know his staff. He’s easy to talk to, and he and his wife, Kathy, are very involved.”
But, the commitment to staff doesn’t end there. Murphy sends employees birthday and anniversary cards and hosts company parties, awards and celebrations throughout the year. “We hold end-of summer and Christmas parties and an annual awards dinner every February for management where we celebrate our accomplishments.
Kevin goes over the top with an amazing meal, guest speakers and the awards. We celebrate the scholarships, give out awards for Special Achievement, Store of the Year, Unsung Hero and such,” Crane explains. The goodwill translates from employer to employee and from server to customer.
Even training sessions do more than teach employees how to clean and prepare food; they teach good hospitality, too. “There are basic steps [in the training],” explains Murphy, alluding to examples like teaching employees the value of shaking hands with guests to thank them for their patronage. “We want the human connection. Sure, we want fast and efficient service, but it’s not robotic.”
The goal is to create a friendly atmosphere that will encourage repeat visits. “We want to reflect what the Island is,” says Crane, “It’s friendly, warm and kind, and we want to make people feel welcome. They always remember us. They always remember Charlottetown.”
“We’re just family oriented,” continues Murphy. “We have a culture of customer service and we go the extra mile. At a Murphy restaurant, a bartender will run next door and pick up a six-pack for a customer so he can have his own beer.” Murphy also pays attention to the finer details at each restaurant, ensuring every customer is greeted by a host on a busy night. If interaction is lacking, he hires more hosts or encourages staff to give diners recommendations for other restaurants if the wait is too long. “It comes down to the human element,” he stresses.
“Guests get a warm feeling of home,” says Crane. “You just have to experience this place.”
photography by john sylvester/klixpix