Company Of The Year: Smoke’s Poutinerie

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With its inspired branding initiative and well-recieved unique poutine concoctions, Smoke’s Poutinerie is taking the Canadian foodservice arena by storm.

Ryan Smolkin is playing air guitar while belting out the lyrics of “Nothin’s But a Good Time” by 1980s glam metal band Poison. And, he’s doing it with infectious enthusiasm, clearly getting carried away as he explains the crucial role that music such as this plays in Smoke’s Poutinerie’s brand identity.

“The music is all eighties’ glam rock and hair bands,” explains Smolkin, owner of the Ajax,
Ont.-based poutine-only chain with more than 35 franchises in eight provinces across the country. “We’ve got Scorpion, Kiss, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Poison, you name it.” There’s a very specific list of songs that play in every Smoke’s Poutinerie restaurant, and nothing else is permitted to play over the speakers. “If you changed the music, you might as well change my sign out front and serve pizza, that’s how important it is,” declares Smolkin.

This is all part of the “brand essence” of Smoke’s, which Smolkin sees as being just as significant to the chain’s success as the food itself. To attract the quick-service restaurant’s key demographic, which tends to be the 18- to 25-year-old urban crowd — especially those looking for a heaping helping of greasy goodness after leaving the nightclubs late on a Friday or Saturday night — all aspects of the brand must appeal to a young partier’s sense of “coolness.” The decor is 1980s’ Canadiana: lumberjack plaid, kitsch and lots of wood and stainless-steel surfaces throughout the restaurant (representing the country’s cold climate, naturally). The fictional character “Smoke” himself is at the heart of the brand — a bespectacled, grinning man who is described on the chain’s website as “a guy who is stuck in the ’80s with a fondness for glam rock. He owns an extensive collection of Cabbage Patch Kids and He-Man action figures. When he’s not at work, he can be seen playing Frogger on his Atari or watching old re-runs of Airwolf, Knight Rider and the A-Team on his VHS.”

The training for franchisees and staff focuses as much on representing the Smoke’s brand properly as it does on the practical aspects of food prep, service and operations. “Half our training is about brand and the importance of brand; how to answer questions, how to look at people, how to talk to them, how to dress, how to answer the phone — that’s all part of overall brand,” says Smolkin. For example: “If someone comes in and says, ‘what’s in a Country Style poutine?’… at other restaurants they might answer, ‘well, you’ve got chicken, bacon, some onions’ — but with us it’s double-smoked bacon, grilled chicken, roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, all on top of fries, curd and piping-hot gravy,” enthuses Smolkin, putting exaggerated emphasis on the descriptive words. “And we’ll say things to the customers like, ‘It’s huge; you’re not going to be able to finish it!’ And they get excited — it’s that interaction. They’re already loving our food before the box is even in their hand; that’s an important part of the brand.”

Branding is one of the 39-year-old entrepreneur’s greatest talents. Prior to opening the first Smoke’s location in November 2008, he had no experience in the foodservice business. The graduate of Waterloo, Ont.’s Wilfrid Laurier University’s Bachelor of Business Administration program had been running his own branding and graphic design company called Amoeba Corp in Toronto but sold it in 2007. After taking a bit of time off to catch his breath and spend time with his infant twin sons, Nate and Sam, he got the entrepreneurial itch to start something new. So the food-loving Ottawa native acted on an idea that had been percolating in his mind for years: a poutine-only restaurant. Because of his lack of restaurant industry experience and scant knowledge about foodservice operations, he knew he had to hire someone who had that practical expertise. So, about a month before opening his first location, Smolkin hired Glenn Mori, who has more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant-and-hospitality industry, including a number of years working in Japan. As vice-president of Operations and Franchising, Mori is the yin to Smolkin’s yang. “My strength is building successful businesses … sales, branding, business-building. Where I fall short — my weakness — is where Glenn’s strength comes in: on the operations and systems side,” he explains.

Shortly after joining the company, Mori devised a solid system for running efficient restaurants. Since it’s not unusual for a Smoke’s location to do approximately 100 orders per hour during the peak after-bar weekend hours between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., the food prep and service system must be as simple as possible.“What it really comes down to is being able to have someone like a 17-year-old high-school student — with no experience and no real skill-set — able to perform the jobs required consistently and efficiently, with minimal room for error,” says Mori, who continually streamlines the system and makes improvements. While he wouldn’t give away “company secrets,” he did say “We look at everything, from the way we prep our food to the way we serve and portion our ingredients. It’s never idiot-proof, but it has to be as close to idiot-proof as possible.”

As Smolkin and Mori worked on building awareness of that first restaurant (located on Adelaide Street, near the club district of Toronto) back in 2008, they began to seek franchisees. The first to sign on was Randy Kitagawa, owner of a successful printing business. Kitagawa’s company was doing printing work for Smoke’s when he met Smolkin and chatted with him about his brand. Despite having no experience in foodservice, Kitagawa was won over by Smolkin’s enthusiasm and decided to become a franchisee. “Ryan knows what he’s doing,” says Kitagawa, “and that’s what I really believed from the very beginning.” The franchisee was amazed at how well his Toronto franchise, located at Bloor and Bathurst, did from the very first day it opened in June 2011(he was the first franchisee to sign on, but wasn’t the first to open, since he took time to secure the perfect location). “I didn’t realize how powerful a brand can be. On day one, we had over 400 customers,” says Kitagawa. “And since then, every weekend we’ve had 400 to 500 customers for every Friday and Saturday. So it’s been more than I expected.” He found such success with his first franchise that he’s opening a new one in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood at College and Ossington, which, at press time, was expected to open in November.

Other areas of booming growth for the chain include the mobile and catering business, which has been exploding ever since Smoke’s put its first mobile food truck into action three years ago. Since then, Smoke’s catering business has been growing steadily, as weddings, golf tournaments, festivals and corporate functions seek fun new ways to feed their attendees.

As for the poutine itself, there are more than 20 unique varieties on the regular menu, with various seasonal and limited-time recipes making appearances on a regular basis. “Right now, our most popular poutine is the Chipotle Pulled Pork,” says Mori. “And really, anything with bacon on it flies out the door.” Adds Smolkin: “Now that we’re getting a national presence, we’re starting to get out more regional specialties.” For instance, the Donair Poutine was a huge hit in Halifax, while Pierogi Poutine does very well in Winnipeg. “If you can think of it, we can put it on a poutine,” says Smolkin, noting that everything, from eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce, to smoked meat and a kosher dill pickle, to a full Thanksgiving turkey dinner (complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce) have at one point or another been served on top of the standard cheese curds, fries and gravy served at Smoke’s. Prices range from $5.49 to $9.99, with nothing breaking the $10 mark.

As operations man, Mori points out that, although the cool factor and the brand are unquestionably important, the food itself must be good for a chain to succeed. “If the product’s no good, the customers are not going to come back. We pride ourselves on good quality food,” he says. “It makes me really happy when I come across someone who says, ‘You’ve got the best-tasting poutine!’”

Overall, Smoke’s growth has been rapid. After opening that first store in November 2008, the franchise-based company quickly grew to 10 units in 2010 and 20 units in 2011 — and with 36 units either open or soon-to-be open as of October, and a few more franchise deals in the works, the brand is on its way to reaching its goal of 40 units by the end of the year. Same-store sales rose by more than five per cent between 2010 and 2011 and by more than 10 per cent between 2011 and 2012. Those increases, combined with the huge growth in number of franchises, meant that chain-wide sales increased by 60 per cent between 2010 and 2011 and 65 per cent between 2011 and 2012. This year, sales are estimated to reach more than $20 million. There are now 12 head-office employees working on the operations, marketing and management side of the business. Space got so tight at its original downtown Toronto head office that this October the team moved into a new, 4,000-sq.-ft. office in Ajax, Ont.

But it’s not all about business growth for Smolkin — although he doesn’t like to make a huge deal about it, charitable and community involvement are important to the entrepreneur. “Anything to do with sick kids and needy families, that’s where my focus is,” he says, adding that Smoke’s will often set up at youth hostels to give away free poutine for a day. He’s involved with a number of charity golf tournaments every year and donates cash and food to countless other charitable events, from the Easter Seals 24-hour Relay to the Toronto Maple Leafs “Have-a-Heart” Charity Dinner. Between 2011 and 2012, Smoke’s charitable donations totalled well over $35,000. But the biggest thing Smoke’s does for charity is its annual Poutine-Eating Championship, created and organized by the chain and held every fall since 2010. Every cent of the proceeds goes to Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank, and last year the event raised $4,000. This year, when F&H chatted with Smolkin, plans were in the works for an October event, featuring “professional eaters” from around the world squaring off at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. And, with this year’s event being on a much larger scale than in previous years, Smolkin was predicting the amount raised for the Daily Bread Food Bank would be in excess of $10,000.

Aside from the ongoing charity work, Smolkin has big plans for further growth in the food truck business and beyond. “The other huge area we’re going to explode in 2013 is the Smoke’s Poutinerie Sports & Entertainment division,” exclaims Smolkin. He’s already set up at Toronto’s Ricoh Colliseum and BMO Field, and, more recently, “We just signed a wicked deal with the Ottawa Senators for the Scotiabank Place stadium,” says Smolkin. “We’re doing all the fries and all the traditional poutine for the entire stadium, but we’ve also got a huge booth where we’ll do multiple versions of our poutine.” Smolkin has high hopes for the sports-and-entertainment division: “Look out North America! We’re going to be hitting all the stadiums,” he crows. And although he hasn’t reached that point yet, he hints that he’s looking at branching out into food courts in the future. The sky is the limit for the ever-enthusiastic entrepreneur when it comes to future growth. “I always say, we haven’t even lit the wick to the dynamite yet; the explosion’s still about to happen.”

images courtesy of Margaret Mulligan

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