Hot Spot: Profiling Vancouver’s White Spot Resto

Warren Erhart, president White Spot

Vancouver’s White Spot Restaurants has a long history of successful hospitality

Warren Erhart knows a thing or two about blueberry pie. First, he says, use only fresh, local berries. Next, lace the juicy orbs with a not-too-sweet glaze and pile them into a soft and flaky personal-sized crust. Finally, top with a dollop of whipped cream. (He also suggests saving room for seconds, but everyone knows that.)

What makes Erhart the expert? He’s the president and CEO of Vancouver-based White Spot Restaurants, a chain that sells thousands of miniature blueberry pies every summer during its Taste of B.C. promotion. “People go crazy for it. It’s a seasonal item, so when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Erhart says. “White Spot buys more local produce than any other restaurant in the province, whether it’s blueberries, mushrooms, salmon or potatoes. It’s part of who we are.” White Spot is an iconic brand with a cult-like following known not just for its tasty local eats but also for its community roots. Ask any Vancouverite about the restaurant, and they’re bound to share childhood memories of Pirate Paks — White Spot’s kid’s meal — or their favourite menu items, such as the famous burger platter or the clam chowder. In fact, according to a 2010 survey by Toronto-based market research firm BrandSpark International, an almost-unbelievable 87 per cent of Vancouver residents had visited either a White Spot restaurant or its sister burger joint, Triple O’s, in the previous year.

Devotion runs deep amongst its clientele, which includes West Coast crooner, Michael Bublé, who raves about the burgers and fries. Even celebrity chefs John Bishop, Umberto Menghi and Rob Feenie give White Spot the thumbs up. “We’ve become an institution, and that’s really exciting, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. It’s challenging when we make changes and people say ‘Hey, what have you done to my White Spot?’” Erhart says. But change is part of the brand’s success. “We’re focused on staying relevant. Just because you have a long history doesn’t guarantee you’ll be around in the future. We look at the competition and consumer demands to make sure we have our pulse on what’s important.”

While the company continues to grow, new locations and established franchises that become available are rarely advertised — most are scooped up by current franchisees. “When we do bring in someone new, we make sure they care about the brand as much as we do. There are plenty of people who have the money to do it, but we want them to have the heart as well,” Erhart explains.

White Spot does its due diligence in the franchisee selection process, including an orientation discovery day, where potential franchisees go through an interview process and meet a range of company employees in departments from purchasing to finance to human resources and information technology. They also spend a day onsite at a restaurant to get an authentic day-in-the-life experience. “A lot of people think they want to own a restaurant, but they don’t actually know what is involved,” the president and CEO says.

Erhart has been with the company for more than two decades (and at the helm for 16 years), but the White Spot story began long before that. Nat Bailey opened the original White Spot Barbecue in June 1928, at the corner of Granville Street and 67th Avenue. It was Canada’s first drive-in restaurant and is rumoured to be the birthplace of the carhop. The popular eatery was known simply as “The Spot.” In other words: the place to be. Today, The Spot has annual sales of more than $200 million from its two brands: White Spot Restaurants, with 65 full-service locations in British Columbia and Alberta (24 corporate and 41 franchises), and Triple O’s, the quick-service concept with 59 locations (three corporate and 56 franchises), including seven in Hong Kong.

The first White Spot franchise opened in 1993, and the business continues to grow, with two new locations in 2011 and five more scheduled for 2012. Last year, the company was named one of Canada’s Top 50 Best Managed Companies in the annual report produced by Deloitte Touche LLP. The full-service brand was also recognized by Go2, an independent partner with the B.C. Hospitality and Tourism Association, winning the Employees First Award, for exceptional standards in human resources management.

Franchisees require an approved operator or partner. Experienced and pre-approved operators are available through the company and an extensive training program is provided for any new owner-operators. Ongoing franchisee support includes marketing, product development, quality assurance, site selection, design and project management. Units are freestanding or located within shopping centres, and

the initial franchise fee is $75,000. Other fees include a monthly royalty of five per cent of gross sales and monthly advertising of two per- cent regional and one per cent for local store marketing. White Spot requires franchisees have a 5,500- to 6,000-sq.-ft. building, or space within a shopping centre, preferably with room for a 1,200-sq.- ft. patio. For stand-alone units, an approximate 38,000- to 40,000- sq.-ft. parking lot with a minimum of 60 parking spots is required.

Full real-estate support is provided during the site selection process. “Our brand is strong and so is our franchise community. Our job at head office is to support White Spot employees in our restaurants and to provide our franchisees with tools to help them grow and succeed,” says Erhart, who is also chair of the CRFA.

White Spot’s annual franchisee surveys consistently reveal excellent ratings for operations support, purchasing and marketing and an increasing number of franchisees investing in multiple locations.

Every year the company conducts an internal survey of employees for feedback on food quality and consistency, asking them to list the menu items they are most proud of and those they might skip.

White Spot invests in its employees. It was the first restaurant company in Canada to offer corporate and franchise managers the opportunity to continue their education while working, earning college-level credits through its management training programs. White Spot has its own Toastmasters Club and also offers its culinary employees the option to complete nationally recognized Red Seal Chef certification inhouse. Forty-five employees have completed the program and another 55 are currently enrolled in various stages of the training. Executive chef, Chuck Currie, and corporate training chef, James Kennedy, are both members of the B.C. Chef ’s Association.

“The White Spot story is about people,” Erhart says. “We have many employees who have worked with us for 20 or 30 years, which is very unusual in an industry with such high turnover. We take the attitude that it’s important for our staff to improve their résumés and to have opportunities to grow within the organization. Some people ask ‘What if you invest all that time and money and your employees leave?’ We say, ‘What if you don’t and they stay?’”

Franchisee Vern Cornforth started working at White Spot 13 years ago as a part-time prep cook. He moved through the kitchen ranks quickly, and, after a year and a half, was enrolled in the management development program. Three years later, he was working as a general manager, and five years after that, he took on the role of regional manager, overseeing operations of 12 restaurants on Vancouver Island. When an opportunity came up in 2009 for Cornforth to buy a franchise, he jumped on it. “I wanted to explore my entrepreneurial skills. I could have done that through another company, but White Spot gave me so many opportunities. People thought I was crazy buying in a recession, but I was confident I would succeed,” Cornforth says.

The Red Seal chef is now investing in his own employees as they work through the training and hopes to have a second franchise within the next year. “White Spot is about integrity, involvement and continuous improvement. Everyone has an opportunity to provide feedback, and we all benefit from that. I’m not sure if all companies are run this way, but they should be,” he says.

Cornforth is proud of White Spot’s many charitable contributions. He supports local organizations and also participates in company-wide initiatives, such as Pirate Pak Day, where $2 from every Pirate Pak sold goes to the Zajac Ranch for special needs children. (This year, the event raised $46,000.) For the past three decades, White Spot has provided the food and staff needed to feed the 3,500 volunteers involved in Variety, the Children’s Charity’s annual 24-hour telethon.

The company continues to flourish. This past year, same-store sales grew and The Spot led its competitive set in same-store sales growth.

Erhart hopes to see franchises opening soon in Alberta, where currently only corporate stores exist. “We like to demonstrate the brand’s ability to succeed in a new market using our own dollar first. Now that we’re established in Alberta, we’re ready to franchise there. We hope to have a more national presence — perhaps moving into Ontario — in the next five years and are open to development opportunities,” he says.

Paul Gilley was one of the first franchisees, opening a White Spot in 1994. He now has five locations, including a flagship store, which recently opened in Surrey, B.C. “I’ve seen the company progress over the years. There have been great improvements made to our food and the way our restaurants look,” Gilley says. The veteran franchisee invests in his businesses through staff training and appreciates other helpful tools the company provides, such as mystery shops and food and safety audits. “White Spot is a big family.” he says. “The beauty of White Spot on the customer side is it appeals to just about everyone.”

Of course, that’s especially true of folks craving a bite of fantastic blueberry pie.


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