Hospitality Heroes: Potatoes for the People


Although the Smoke’s Poutinerie brand is well-known for its public work with Friends of We Care (FOWC), a charitable initiative that sends kids with special needs to accessible camps, its founder and CEO Ryan Smolkin is quietly making a difference behind the scenes as well.

Five years ago, Smolkin began delivering 50-lb. bags of potatoes to local food banks and shelters on his own time. He convinced a few franchisees to join him in the beginning and last year saw 31 franchisees participating to deliver more than 15,000 lbs. of potatoes in their communities. “It was a real source of pride for me [that franchisees jumped on board],” says Smolkin, adding the initiative was never meant to garner any type of press or public recognition.

He also contacted his twin sons’ hockey team and offered bags of spuds for its annual food drive in support of the Salvation Army. “The kids came over to the restaurant wearing their jerseys and we let them videotape it for themselves — nothing to do with Smoke’s — and deliver the bags to the Salvation Army. There were 20 kids participating and taking pride in what they were doing,” he recalls, adding, as a parent, it’s important to him to lead by example.

“Giving back to the community is one of our core corporate values [at Smoke’s] and every franchisee has to see that, believe in it and be a part of it if they want to be a franchisee. We actually talk to potential franchisees about it in the very first screening.”

And, he says, it’s not a hard sell. In fact, many of the brand’s charitable initiatives are franchisee driven — a trend he encourages whole heartedly. “It can be whatever they want — whatever hits home with them.”

He also encourages franchisees to ensure unused food gets into the hands of the community’s most vulnerable. “[After events], we have food left over, so rather than take it back to the restaurants, we give it away.” Whether it’s dropped off at shelters or handed out on the street, Smolkin is making sure Smoke’s is doing its part to fight hunger in its communities.

The savvy entrepreneur is also committed to helping the next generation of foodservice professionals. Last year he launched the EDU-TAINMENT Program, which helps post-secondary graduates buy their own Smoke’s franchise by offering a 50-per-cent discount off all franchise-related fees within two years of graduation. He also offers a 100-per-cent discount once a year to a student who attends one of his many speaking engagements.

But, of all the causes he supports, Smolkin is most passionate about the work he does with FOWC. Apart from being on its board of directors — the first and only board he’s ever joined — Smoke’s has raised more than $400,000 for FOWC camps through its annual World Poutine Eating Contest.

“My focus has always been on kids that just haven’t had the same chances and I always gravitate towards [charities that support kids],” he explains, adding his sons volunteer at FOWC camp each summer and have built lasting friendships with campers.

From late-night potato runs to annual poutine-eating competitions in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, Smolkin continues to strike a balance between his company’s goal of global domination and a commitment to social responsibility.

“[Giving back] can be as simple as volunteering your time — personal hours and commitment that nobody sees,” he says.

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