Century Hospitality Group hones hip hospitality in the heartland
In the late ’80s, Edmonton, the City of Champions, was truly earning its moniker. The Oilers, powered by none other than Gretzky himself, along with a stellar supporting cast, kept Lord Stanley’s mug in regular circulation, and even the CFL’s Eskimos were perennial contenders. Thanks to a steady supply of something to celebrate, bars and restaurants were happening social hotspots. Amidst that palpable excitement, Chris Lachance, now president of the Century Hospitality Group (CHG), caught the restaurant bug.
How did I get my start?” he asks, pondering the question over the phone from his Edmonton office. “That’s a funny story. When I was younger, I decided I was either going to be a rock star or go into the restaurant business. At the time, I was playing the drums in a band and working as a dishwasher and busboy. I guess one day I just came to the realization that my chances of making it out of Edmonton as a rock star were pretty slim, so in the late ’80s I started working at what was then called Trumps, a fine-dining restaurant here in the city.”
While not exactly whipping up a frenzied crowd from the stage at Madison Square Garden, Lachance, now 40, says Trumps had a little bit of that rock star cachet, even as he worked his way out of the dish pit to more senior front-of-house positions. “It was a great time to be there,” he says. “In those days at Trumps we were drinking champagne out of the Stanley Cup.”
Back then, he never imagined the food business would become his career. “By the time I had reached manager at Trumps, I was thinking about heading to law school, when a mentor encouraged me to give hospitality a serious try. He suggested the program at Ryerson [University] in Toronto and insisted I give it a year. I took the chance, and the rest is history.”
In the last 10 years, that decision has led to the creation of the Century Hospitality Group, which Lachance says will do well north of $15-million in sales this year, and the birth of some of Edmonton’s coolest, splashiest restaurants such as Century Room, The Century Grill, 100 Bar and Grill, LUX Steakhouse and Bar, as well as the recently expanded burger concept — Delux Burger Bar. “I opened the Century Grill in late 1999, so I’ve got 10 years under my belt, but as a group we like to think of ourselves as fast-forward thinkers, innovators and a company comprised of great people. That’s really what we’re about.”
Impressive growth is one thing, but Lachance has always been committed to originality, too. “It’s the creative process and the innovation that comes with launching a new concept I really enjoy,” he says. “It’s not just about the number of units or total revenues. We have to strategize what to do and where to do it next very carefully.”
That’s exactly what happened when the hip vibe at Century Grill was applied to LUX Steakhouse and Bar, a carnivorous concept developed several years later in what Lachance attests to be a surprisingly under-served market in beef-mad Edmonton.
Continuing the trend, evolving from the kitchens at LUX, was the idea of serving truly premium burgers. “At LUX, we were the first place in Edmonton to serve sliders, and we were the first to offer a premium Kobe burger,” says Lachance. “I can remember talking to our chef about it, and being worried we’d only sell a few of these things a week. In the end, we decided even if the menu item had no money in it, we had to do it. It was going to be our positioning statement.”
Far from a shaky investment, Lachance says the restaurant quickly started selling hundreds of the premium burgers, exposing yet another obvious local-market niche the group was happy to fill, with Delux Burger Bar, an upscale burger-and-fries joint offering premium burgers priced between $9 and $20.
And, with the burger business booming, another bold step was recently taken at the group of stand-alone restaurant concepts, when execs began to dab their toes into the chain game, opening a second location — this time at the city’s iconic West Edmonton Mall.
“We just opened our second store, which we’re very excited about,” says the exuberant president. “The mall bills itself as the greatest show on Earth, and if we can’t sell North America’s ethnic food there, then where can we? But I can tell you that it could either be our second and last, or second of many more.”
Despite the success thus far, Lachance’s cautious reservation when it comes to expansion comes from more than a decade in the restaurant ownership game. “I can absolutely see us expanding the Delux Burger brand, but I can’t say for certain right now,” he says. “I’ve seen so many people expand their brand rapidly, grow the concept, prematurely jump to the franchising route, and it can result in inconsistency and quick failure. Our growth has to be strategic, more deliberate than that. Maybe we could have opened more restaurants and more Delux Burger bars, but would we be further ahead today? Who knows.”
Given the broad-based food offerings on CHG menus, Lachance and his team are not afraid to take culinary chances, and he sees the group as being on the forefront of the Edmonton food scene. Whether it’s steak at LUX, shared gourmet comfort food at 100 or raw bar options at Century Room, it’s all about innovation, while keeping the market in mind. “There’s the old saying that good artists borrow from others and great artists steal,” he jokes. “Well, the restaurant business in no different; we travel a lot, and we eat at a lot of restaurants. If we find an idea, or even just a menu item that might work in Edmonton, we’ll take that idea, and knock it off in our own kind of style. Edmonton is still fairly meat and potatoes, but I think we’re on the verge of becoming a great restaurant city.”
According to Lachance, ensuring CHG is in the right fiscal position to take advantage of Edmonton’s expanding culinary palate involves just as much innovation on the group’s menus. “Our innovation comes out of necessity,” he starts. “Look at the recession as an example. Let’s hope we don’t see another year like 2009 again, but it did force us to streamline our operation. We’re determined to provide premium first-class food in premium venues, but people also demanded a premium value. During the worst of the recession, we were out there advertising and even expanding our portfolio, when everyone else was pulling back. As a result, we’re even more top of mind in terms of the consumer than we were before.”
Whether that position translates into an expansion of the group, either via the Delux Burger Bar brand or an entirely new concept, remains to be seen. Lachance is optimistic, without tipping his hat. “We want to be Western Canada’s most innovative dining group; that’s our mission,” he says. “Obviously, our expansion is dependent on the economy recovering, and I can’t give away too many trade secrets. We’ve got two concepts in the vault that we’re itching to roll on, but it has to be a sound business decision. I’ve seen too many places come and go,” he adds.
While it’s the bottom line that makes the business tick, and Lachance is a businessman at heart, that heart has a lot of time for the community and for the town he calls home. “At the end of the day, I was born and raised here and have chosen to do business here,” he says. “It’s an amazing community. The people here are incredible, and have been very supportive. As a result, we try and support them too.”
And, although the group may be young, it still has a lot to offer. “We’ve always been involved in charities, and at this point we’re well over a million dollars in donations. In fact, just last year we pledged $500,000 over the next five years to go towards prostate cancer research,” he says, also pointing out that, after just one year, the team is nearly a quarter of a million dollars into that pledge with plans to reach its five-year goal in only two.
From the dish pit and sipping champers with the Great One at Trumps, to being top-dog of an expanding group of restaurants, Lachance has the zeal and excitement of that 20-year-old drummer, while also maintaining the patience and restraint of a restaurateur many years his senior. As a result, the CHG team is excited about the future, while keenly aware of the past, which is a given considering Lachance’s own playbook and the fate of Trumps — that fine-dining hotspot of the ’80s. “That’s now the Century Grill,” he says with a chuckle. “It had gone through a couple of names by the time I decided to buy it, but I feel like we’ve come full-circle.”
Photographed by Roth and Ramberg