Independent Restaurateur of the Year: Charcoal Group of Restaurants

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Photo by Ema Suvajac

When Jody Palubiski read a story in GQ magazine about the birth of the modern beer bar, “it equated to the birth of cool for me. [The story] was about [concepts] that had emerged in Manhattan after the recession — it really showed where the market was going. The pictures showed what looked like investment bankers, but their ties were pulled down, their sleeves were rolled up and they were hoisting an interesting looking glass filled with beer.”

The CEO of Waterloo-based Charcoal Group of Restaurants knew “this was where the puck was going and if we wanted to be a company that innovates and anticipates, it was important for us to take notice. The next week I was in Manhattan visiting the places [in the article] and that was how Beertown was born.”

Beertown Public Houses is the latest concept from the team that brought us Moose Winooski’s, Charcoal Steakhouse, Dels, Martini’s, Wildcraft Grill + Long Bar, Wildcraft Wherever Catered Events, The Bauer Kitchen, The Bauer Bakery & Café and Sociable Kitchen & Tavern.

The Charcoal Group’s legacy dates back to 1955, when Del and Aretha Wideman took over the 42-seat Charcoal Pit restaurant in Waterloo, Ont. The industry newcomers — who had never run a restaurant before — turned out to have a real knack for foodservice and by 1962 had moved into a 250-set dining room and rebranded to Charcoal Steakhouse.

“It was the place to be,” says Palubiski, a Waterloo native who joined Charcoal Group in 2003. “It used to host all the training camps and celebrities going through [town]. By 1976, it had moved down the road and Del had built a 26,000-sq.-ft. restaurant complex. It was a massive undertaking that took a great amount of courage and belief.”

The risk paid off. The original restaurant added a small piano bar called The Liberty Lounge, as well as banquet rooms in the basement. In 1982, the Widemans converted the lower level into a luxury seafood restaurant called the Lower Deck.

In 1991, Del sold the Charcoal business to his sons, Tim and Tom. “They didn’t sit back and rest on their laurels; they focused on the future,” says Palubiski. “By 1993, they’d converted the Library Lounge into an interesting, relevant, cosmopolitan bar called Martini’s.”

Today, the Charcoal Group, headed by the Wideman brothers, Palubiski and John Zizzo, remains focused on building restaurants that exceed team member, guest, stakeholder and community expectations.

“[When we formed Charcoal Group] in 2007, it was about trying to provide interesting dining spaces and do things we were proud of for the community we lived in,” says Palubiski.

Charcoal Group currently has 13 Ontario restaurants under its various banners in Kitchener/Waterloo, London, Burlington, Brantford, Barrie and Oakville. When choosing locations for expansion, Palubiski says thinking through how to functionally manage them is key.

“Keeping everything within an hour-and-a-half drive [from Kitchener] was an important thing originally and now, as we branch out, we’re still looking at how we group [locations] together for the ongoing management, to assure there’s economy of time and movement.”

The company, which recorded sales of $50 million this year and anticipates reaching $70 million in 2020, now has its sights set on Toronto, with a 6,000-sq.-ft., 220-seat Beertown location scheduled to open in February 2020.

“Guelph is another natural choice for us,” says Palubiski. “It’s a half hour outside of Kitchener/Waterloo and [people there] have heard or seen every radio and print advertisement we’ve ever done, so the brand halo extends there very naturally. It’s about thinking strategically from an execution and brand-awareness standpoint. We’re actively working to fill the pipeline for years to come.”

The restaurants under the Charcoal Group umbrella employ between 800 and 1,000 people, depending on the season. The new Beertown locations will swell those ranks by 300 to 400.

Its Beertown concept — which boasts scratch-made cuisine and a carefully curated beer and beverage menu — has been leading the growth charge in 2019, riding the wave of craft-beer popularity. “When we define the brand essence of Beertown, it’s the leader in the craft-beer dining revolution,” says Palubiski. “People think of us and think of beer, but we want to be so much more than that — we want to offer great family dining experiences.”

For example, the restaurants offer “Rootbeer Town” for kids, along with other fun initiatives, to ensure it’s a dining room the entire family feels comfortable coming to.

Last year, Charcoal Group’s corporate exec-utive chef Todd Clarmo — an acclaimed Toronto touque who has cooked at the renowned James Beard House in New York City — redesigned Beertown’s vegan and gluten-free menus. “I underestimated the impact that would have,” says Palubiski. “Chef Clarmo went back to every base recipe and ingredient to ensure we were great across the board and he launched the vegan and gluten-free menus to a huge response.”

Clarmo’s food philosophy centres around understanding what guests want and then pushing the boundaries with creativity, uniqueness, freshness and seasonality.

While the drink menu also features gluten-free products, Palubiski says his team’s focus is on non-alcoholic or low-alcohol options. “One of our goals is to be the poster child for responsible service. We look at our stakeholders, our team members, our guests, our shareholders, the community around us and our supply chain. To be a great part of the community, we have to be responsible and put our team members in a position to succeed. It’s an uncomfortable thing, serving, monitoring and controlling alcohol consumption, so we wanted to do everything we could to give [staff] the tools to be successful at it.”

He says the company also wanted to make sure to protect the shareholders, from a liability perspective, by actively pursuing the idea of alcohol-free beers. “It’s an emerging trend and we hope to be at the forefront of it. One of the mottos of Beertown we’ve tried to adapt is ‘drink better, drink less’. We want to do everything we possibly can to be leaders in that regard.”

Being industry leaders shines through in every facet of Charcoal Group’s operation — from its business philosophies and mentorship programs to employee engagement and community service. The leadership team pushes for constant and never-ending improvement. “What’s great today is not good enough tomorrow,” says Palubiski. “We’re always asking ‘what can we do better?’ As much as [this approach] is exhausting, it’s what drives us every day.”

He says the company’s success is built on a foundation of great people who share a vision for Charcoal Group’s future. “I feel like I have a dream-team around me every day.”

That dream team, by the way, boasts a large number of female leaders — although Palubiski says it wasn’t an intentional strategy. “Everyone has a voice here and people are given an opportunity to emerge. There’s a lot of young, female emerging leaders that hopefully see that and think, ‘there’s a company I can thrive with’.”

Opportunities to thrive abound at Charcoal Group, as the company strives to empower and mentor its staff at all levels of the operation. The company also works closely with culinary schools in the area, sponsoring various events and recruiting culinary and hospitality students looking for a career in the industry.

“The best opportunity we have is to develop people who will carry through and make decisions in keeping with those that have got [the company] to this point, to take the team members that have grown from within.”

And, says Palubiski, Charcoal Group is more than happy to share that good fortune with the community. The company has been a long-time supporter of the hospitals in the Kitchener/Waterloo area and has developed strong relationships with food banks and school-lunch programs in the areas where it operates by providing product, time and monetary donations.

“There’s a Chinese proverb that says ‘the man who has enough food to eat has many problems, the man who does not have enough food to eat only has one problem.’ The same for your health. You can have a lot going on in your life, but you find out tomorrow your child is sick, nothing else really matters.”

Following a recent $2.5-million upgrade of its Wildcraft location in uptown Waterloo, the company threw a pre-opening party and raised $10,000 for two local hospices. And, throughout its restaurant portfolio, Charcoal Group supports local fundraising programs, including KW Club Days, Red Day supporting St. Mary’s Hospital, Food 4 Kids in the Halton region, the Brant United Way and the MS Society of Canada.

“Most of [our charitable work] is corporate-driven, where we look to the employees to be a part of it. They derive a great sense of satisfaction — a great sense of pride — from having been a part of these events.”

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