Curd Your Enthusiasm


Ryan Smolkin takes his passion for innovative branding to new heights

Ryan Smolkin leads the way down the street from his offices — currently under renovation — to Smoke’s Poutinerie on Dundas St. E., decked out in sandals, shorts and a company branded t-shirt. Smolkin doesn’t fit the regular shirt-and-tie image of a businessman but don’t be fooled.

The 37-year-young father-of-two carved out his own empire of 10 quick-serve poutineries across Ontario in less than two years, and he’s just getting started.

Walking into Smoke’s, decorated with the now familiar red and black plaid design and bespeckled floating ‘head’ of the company, it’s kismet to hear the entrepreneur’s personal and business mentors blaring from the speakers: “Shout it Out Loud” by retro pop-metal band KISS.

The face-painted musicians have something special, the curd-lovin’ entrepreneur explained in his office earlier: “They saw themselves becoming the biggest band in the world and of all time, and that’s what they became…It’s all perception; it’s all about building a brand, that’s what they did.” He pauses, noting his disappointment in lead singer Gene Simmons’s reality show before adding: “That guy is a true entrepreneur, he branded himself.”

It’s easy to make the connection. Smolkin’s been branding since before he knew what the term meant, but his entrepreneurial spirit started much earlier. “I’ve always worked for myself since I was this high, selling lemonade off lemonade stands,” he says, cutting the air at a point just higher than his desk. “All through university I had little side businesses.”

Between hanging with friends and earning his BBA at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Smolkin was busy selling sporting gear onsite and becoming a self-professed slum lord. “I started buying rental properties. I was in a business co-op program, so I was making money while I was there. I was saving everything, and I saved enough to put a down payment on my first student rental property — that was the start of my fourth year of university, and then that ballooned,” he recalls. “I ended up having $4 million in assets and properties — I think I had 13 places total. That’s just from reinvesting and leveraging assets and refinancing.”

Soon after, and still relatively green, the grad made contact with a couple graphic artists while getting some t-shirts designed. Before long, he had an idea to build a graphic design and branding company with the designers he had met. Forget that he knew nothing about the subject. “We had no credentials and zero experience,” he says, reminiscing about the times he struggled to make a profit, before a big break with the youth-focused television station YTV, paved the way for contracts with Nike and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., where the team named, branded, promoted and built an identity for the Toronto FC and Toronto Marlies.

In 2007, Smolkin had to decide whether to invest more money in the business or sell it; he chose the latter. After some time off, the new free agent began to formulate his plan for a business that conjured memories of his childhood.

Growing up in Ottawa — among five generations of entrepreneurs, no less — Smolkin fondly remembers digging into crisp french fries, doused in gravy and topped with squeaky curds. It’s no wonder the idea to build a chain of poutineries has been percolating in his mind for years. The fact there was zero competition in Toronto made the decision that much easier.

Turns out he was right on the money. “From day one, when we opened, they were lined up outside the door, around the block, and I started getting crazy PR and great support,” he enthuses. “It’s actually gone over double the volume I had predicted in the first location.”

“It’s been amazing, beyond our expectations. We’re opening our 10th [location] next month in Kingston,” adds Glenn Mori, Smoke’s GM and 25-year-foodservice vet, brought aboard to help the boss, who had — surprise — no prior experience in the industry. “Ryan’s kept his word and really made believers out of some of the suppliers who were perhaps skeptical at the time. They understand we’re more than just talk.”

Of course, the detractors were there in the beginning. To start, many didn’t believe it was smart to focus on one core menu item and many were doubtful customers would pay $10 for poutine. Ironically, it was likely the value that appealed to the customers  who flocked amid the recession — which hit within weeks of opening — thrice daily (at lunch, dinner and late night) to gorge themselves on the hand-cut Canadian-sourced Yukon Gold french fries, homemade gravy and Quebec-sourced curds.

“It’s not price sensitive. That’s been something I found out from the very beginning,” Smolkin says of his 20-plus varieties of the Habitant favourite. “People are buying the highest priced [items], if anything that’s better value, and it truly is value when they see what we load onto this.” Take customer favourites, like country-style poutine ($8.99 for a large, $6.99 for a small) with slow-roasted chicken breast, double-smoked bacon, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions or pulled pork poutine ($8.99/$6.99) infused with smoky chipotle.

The servings and quality of ingredients are beyond expectation. In fact, one former limited-time offering no longer available — the slaughterhouse poutine — was packed with six types of meat and was so big it could only fit in the larger of the two take-out containers.

But, it’s not just about the food. Smolkin has built a brand he sells to prospective franchisees and the community at large. “My truck,” he begins, alluding to his mobile-catering vehicle, “the guy who built it said it was the biggest chip truck he’s ever built. It’s a 28-footer, and it’s just totally wrapped — bumper to bumper, top to bottom — with our plaid and our brand. It’s like, oh my God, it’s so awful, it’s great. I’m all about branding.”

It was one of the things that drew Mori to the company. “Most people put up newspapers on their windows when they’re building but Ryan had [the store] branded out with plaid.” The brand colours and design even caught the eye of a local TV network employee who contacted Smolkin to appear on Toronto’s daily morning show, Breakfast Television, before the first kitchen had even opened.

Whether on television or driving his awful yet great chip truck, Smolkin means business, but he has a sense of humour, too. Torontonians may see Smoke, the eponymous figure-(ahem)-head, bobbing along Queen Street, emblazoned on a t-shirt, or stuck to a dating ad posted to a mailbox, but it’s more than that. “You’re selling an experience, you’re selling a brand, you’re selling a concept, you’re selling Smoke’s Poutinerie,” the passionate businessman tells potential franchisees. “It’s our mobile truck, it’s Smoke — this Canadiana guy — it’s old ’80s signage,” he says about the lumberjack theme, and its Northern Canadian vibe, before stressing the importance of selling a good product.

The key is to make sure his franchisees understand his ethos and have common sense as well as a keen work ethic. He doesn’t require foodservice alums or even overly experienced businesspeople. “You can train any skill, but you can’t train personality,” he points out.

And, with more than 1,000 franchise requests on the table, the easiest way to find a serious contender is to lay out the price of entry, which is about $250,000 per unit, with a $125,000 equity investment.

Finding a good franchise partner fast enough is one of his problems, as the business continues to balloon. It’s why there’s been a conscious decision to temporarily slow down. “[In the fall] we’re going to re-group and solidify all the operations and next year we’re looking to make a big push nationwide,” explains the GM.

Big push is an understatement. Smolkin plans to double business next year, already talking with a master franchisor in the Maritimes and discussing plans to launch a sports and entertainment division to carve out concessions in sporting venues across the country. “In my initial business plan, I had 20 locations across the country,” says the owner. “We’re probably going to do 20 in a smaller part of Ontario now.”

“Who knows, it’s hard to imagine where we’ll be next year, let alone two or three years down the road,” adds Mori, who is obviously keen to keep working with the innovator. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever worked for, which is something you can’t say with all businesspeople who own companies; they leave others to do the work.”

So, does that mean the relentless innovator will still be leading the poutine pack in a few years? This combines “two of my greatest loves — food and business, so I’m pretty happy right now,” answers Smolkin. “This is going to take years to build out.”

In the meantime, Smolkin will surely have his nose to the grindstone, jamming to KISS as his empire expands — along with the country’s previously unimaginable appetite for curry poutine.

Photographed by Doug Forster

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