TORONTO — Panel discussions, speakers, breakout sessions and networking was the order of the day yesterday at the third-annual Canadian Restaurant Investment Summit (CRIS) held at the Hilton Toronto hotel, where optimism was widespread.
“There’s a lot more positive buzz and hope for a better year,” said Ed Khediguian of GE Capital upon welcoming guests to the GE Capital/Big Picture Conferences event, where the inaugural “Canadian Chain Restaurant Industry Review” commissioned by GE Capital and compiled by FsStrategy and NPD Group Canada, was released, showing foodservice sales are expected to increase by 3.1 per cent to $65.4 billion this year.
Dennis Lombardi, of U.S.-based WD Partners, was the first to take the stage for a presentation on recovering lost profit. “You can’t outrun the bear, which is the economy, but you can outrun your competition,” he said, explaining areas of lost revenue. It’s about optimizing seats, so there’s room for one, two and four guests at a time, he explained. Other areas to watch are digital marketing, digital brand strategy, employee productivity and menu rationalization.
A more in-depth look at the industry continued with a panel discussion about economic trends, including reports that diners are returning to the market, despite some news to the contrary. “Our traffic is down. Making guests happy is the hardest challenge,” said Don Robinson, president and CEO of Cara, who also voiced a need to make the industry a more desirable place to work as a labour squeeze approaches.
Of course, money was the big theme of the day with a “Where’s the Money?” breakout session revealing a new interest in foodservice investment. “You’re seeing solid performance in that space,” said Jacob Mancini of GE Capital. “That’s driving people to look at restaurants as viable capital.”
On that theme, a panel discussion dissected four Canadian restaurant deals, including the Prime Restaurants and the U.S.-based Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited buyout. “None of my team was looking for a sale, but sometimes when you’re not looking, the sale comes to you,” said John Rothschild, CEO of Prime, while discussing the deal that began after an unsolicited offer from Cara.
Next, a lively breakout session about Quebec stressed the importance of recognizing the difference of culture and language when expanding foodservice business into the province. Michael Nadeau of Tim Hortons explained how the chain grew in Quebec by creating a localized head office, re-shooting commercials with local actors and adding native dishes to the menu.
The conference ended with Paul Hollands, president and CEO of A&W, answering questions from CBC’s Amanda Lang about everything from his worst moment (the Mad Cow outbreak) to his favourite restaurant (Earls) to key drivers of success, such as company climate and the secret to attracting all demographics to the boomer-friendly brand. “It’s still a heritage brand, but it’s not old-fashioned,” said the CEO, who plans to build on that theme. He hopes to grow the brand to 1,000 stores in Canada and is on his way, with 200 in the pipeline and plans to open 30 per year for the foreseeable future.
In closing, proceeds from last year’s conference were donated to the Cause We Care Foundation. The $10,000 cheque will support Vancouver’s single mothers in need.