Leading Through Crisis: Ryan Smolkin

Ryan Smolkin, Founder/CEO, Smoke’s Poutinerie. Photography by KC Armstrong

For Ryan Smolkin, being a good leader means surrounding himself with great people — and then listening to what they have to say.

“It’s not just sitting back and dictating, telling people what to do and when to do it,” says the founder/CEO of the Toronto-based cult favourite, Smoke’s Poutinerie. “It’s [listening to] their opinion, because they’re way better than me in their areas, and [encouraging them] to bring ideas to the table.”

But, as COVID-19 forced the closure of a large chunk of the Smoke’s network,
Smolkin was faced with the hard job of laying off a large number of those great people. Maintaining a positive attitude — without appearing phony — became key to leading his brand.

“A lot of people would try to be positive in a fake way or by sharing the [information] they’re hoping will make people happy,” he says. “But you have to keep it real — stay positive and supportive — while balancing that with the reality of what’s going on in the world.”

When Coronavirus upended the industry in early March, Smolkin began holding “state-of-the-union” meetings to open conversations with his whole system.

“We got the whole system on board — headquarters, franchisees and suppliers — keeping them in the loop. The most important thing is that it’s consistent, continual and real communication.”

He also used this opportunity to keep his team abreast of what’s happening in the world and in Canada and how those events trickle back down to the restaurant industry.

His goal for the empire he built from scratch is “survive, sustain and succeed so we can start building again. But you have to be able to accept the downside first. Make sure you’re able to weather that storm, keep people motivated and stay true to our brand.”

Motivation is something the serial entrepreneur is familiar with. With three successful multi-million-dollar businesses under his belt, Smolkin offers advice to other leaders. “Just because it’s downtime [during COVID-19], doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use that time to your advantage and still invest in the people around you.”

And Smolkin walks the talk. While much of the industry has ground to a halt, Smoke’s has continued to plan for a post-pandemic reality. Its “global domination” remains on track, with three units set to open in the UAE and units pre-sold in Hungary and Czech Republic.

“We’re also looking at the Malaysian market — it’s going to be huge for us and we have tons of leads there already. It will get stalled for a year, maybe two years, but the exciting part is taking it to true global domination — it’s not just words.”

He also recommends leaders use this opportunity to re-evaluate their leadership styles and strengthen their toolkit.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re staying strong,” he says. “You have to be able to adapt and grow.”

He says he hasn’t changed his leadership style during the last few months, but he has developed a new set of goals, objectives and a strategy to get to that [successful] end point while motivating people though the essence of leadership — making people want to follow you. True leaders have to be able to step it up at a time like this. If you can’t, you’re in trouble, you’ll go under.”

Smolkin adds a good leader can’t be afraid to make crucial decisions — especially in times of crisis.

“[During COVID-19], it was tough, but hard decisions have to be made and you have to do it quick and you have to do it decisively or the whole ship goes down.”

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