When it comes to talking long-term success, Ryan Smolkin, Smoke’s Poutinerie founder and owner, is not shy about his goals: “Global domination, maybe even galactic domination!” he says, half joking.
Smolkin can be forgiven for having out-of-this-world ambition — his 31-unit operation has doubled in size every year since it first opened, to much fanfare and never-ending line-ups, in 2008.
Then there was a monumental uptick between 2010 and 2011, when sales climbed from $9 million to $14 million. “We wanted to grow to 10 units in 2010 and 20 in 2011,” Smolkin explains. “Right now we’re at 31, and we’re probably going to hit 40 by the end of the year, and that’s our cap; hyper-growth isn’t good either.”
Smoke’s Poutinerie, an ’80s-style, Lumberjack-themed “Canadiana” quick-service chain that offers every variety of Montreal classic poutine you can imagine, began as a small unit on Adelaide Street in Toronto in November of 2008. The store’s wild success allowed the brand to grow exponentially — a feat Smolkin speaks of with pride. “We created the poutinerie name, and now the big guys [such as Burger King, Harvey’s] are spending millions on their poutine campaigns. It’s a huge compliment,” he says.
The first operation, ensconced in the downtown nightlife district, wisely targeted hungry late-night revelers looking for an affordable but fulfilling treat. As for the brand’s continued success, Smolkin credits the resto’s atmosphere and offerings. “It’s not just the fries, curds and gravy. It’s the experience, it’s the brand. People think of what they’ll get the next time they come. It’s our national iconic dish.”
The menu is full of fun variations on the fries/curds/gravy concoction. There’s the Curry Chicken Poutine ($7.49 to $9.49, depending on size), the Pulled Pork Poutine ($7.49 to $9.49, depending on size) and the Nacho Veggie Poutine ($7.49 to $9.49, depending on size). The resto has also had successful limited-time offers, such as the Pierogi Poutine and Thanksgiving Poutine, complete with turkey, stuffing, peas and cranberry sauce.
Smolkin is continuing his quest for world domination by targeting university towns (a location is set to open in Niagara Falls later this year), sports and entertainment facilities, and the U.S. market. “Poutine is just starting to simmer [in the U.S.],” says Smolkin.
But, the drive to grow the brand’s reach doesn’t end with conventional expansion. Smokes’ also runs three food trucks (one in Toronto, one in Hamilton, Ont., and one in Calgary); the Toronto truck has been operating for three years. “We led that trend,” says Smolkin, speaking of the food-truck invasion. “It’s a fully functional restaurant with plumbing and electricity. A truck is in every franchisee’s contract, but we make sure they run the four-wall restaurant for at least one year. The truck stems from the four-wall franchise.”
But even though the food truck model isn’t the brand’s pièce de résistance, Smolkin proudly declares the Big Smoke truck a powerhouse. “Our truck does six events a weekend,” he says, alluding to the venture’s “insane numbers,” that are driving the brand one step closer to national domination.