Regional Company Of The Year: Browns Socialhouse

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Everybody remembers Norm. The fictional character’s name was bellowed out every time he opened the door and took his seat on a bar stool at Cheers. And, now Browns Socialhouse takes that concept to a new level, merging the idea of a neighbourhood pub with a premium casual-dining concept. Everyone may not shout out the guest’s names as they did on Cheers, but this customer-centered and socially minded approach is setting a new standard in dining.

It’s hard to fathom, but the owner, founder and creative guru of Browns, had a rocky start to his career. Before launching the Browns Socialhouse concept, Scotty Morison was rejected from the hospitality and tourism programs at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and Red River College in Winnipeg. But that didn’t stop him, and Morison dove into the culinary scene, choosing a new school (the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology), and practising his craft by working in various roles at Earls Kitchen & Bar. Shortly after, he opened an ice-cream and sandwich parlour, before founding Cactus Club with Richard Jaffray in 1988. “I was kind of fortunate I wasn’t accepted into BCIT. The irony was, two years later [after the rejection], the graduating class of the class I applied for came to me and said, ‘we want you to come and do a speech to our class on how to run a successful restaurant.’ It was one of those moments in life,’’ Morison recalls.

Recognition has been building since Morison flipped through a phone book, randomly selected the name “Brown,” and opened his first Vancouver-based Browns Socialhouse in 2004. This year, Browns received F&H’s Top 100 Award for greatest year-over-year percentage increase in sales, with a 64-per-cent jump in sales in 2011 over 2010 and $29.5 million in gross sales last year. By October 2012, the company surpassed $27 million in gross sales for the year.

The personalized service at the Socialhouse sets it apart. “You can come into a Browns and be known as a regular customer,” explains Morison. Every aspect of the restaurant promotes social interaction, from the design to the music. “Our bar is front and centre, and there’s somebody there to greet you,” says Scott Ward, VP of Operations, who says the new oval design of the bar draws in guests from all sides. The room is also set up so guests can make eye contact with anyone from across the room. Plus, many of the items on the one-page menu are shareable, such as the charred pepperoni pizza with dry-aged, chargrilled pepperoni, pepperoncini and asiago ($13.95); the Biltmore pizza with pesto, feta, shrimp, sundried tomato and jalapeño white sauce ($14.25); and the classic hot wings ($10.45), which can be washed down with a pitcher of Granville Island Social Lager or Pale Ale. “Our music selection is also pretty eclectic,” Ward adds. “We have different varieties of music, and some of the songs are favourites that everybody knows. It’s not unheard of for people to start singing a song, all in unison, later in the evening,” he says.

With a strong definition and focus, Browns has enjoyed rapid growth in the eight years since its inception, with 15 franchised locations in Western Canada and more than 700 employees. Recently, the chain has migrated into the U.S. market with two units in Washington state, under the name, ‘Scotty Browns.’ But the biggest accomplishment in the past year, according to Morison, is entering the Saskatchewan market. “It was a huge highlight for me,” he beams. “I never saw myself doing that or growing that way, but in the end it makes so much sense.”

Besides planning unit openings in the Prairies, the team has sold four franchises in Alberta, including a unit in Red Deer, Alta., and another unit in Manitoba. Its growth isn’t slowing either — with plans to open 15 additional units next year.

For new franchisees, a community-minded attitude is a prerequisite, and the group prefers to sell franchises to those who already know the community inside-out. “We probably get 100 applicants for every one we award,” says Morison. “That’s the way we like to look at it — we don’t sell them, we award them,” he adds.

To find franchisees, Browns focuses on local marketing tactics instead of national campaigns. Ward describes it as concentrating on the small footprint of “four walls, four blocks, four kilometres,” marketing to the community instead of the country. The restaurant’s smaller-than-average footprint also generates a great deal of franchisee interest. “It’s a smaller, tighter model — on average it’s about 3,000 sq. ft., it gets built for about $1.5 million, and so the [initial] investment and the operating costs in the long run are lower,” explains Bruce Fox, COO of Browns.

Across the board, the Browns brand is championed by employees who are “young at heart,” describes Fox. “We have people who are between 30 and 40 as our primary franchise owner age group, but they are already industry veterans,” he says, adding that a lot of the growth comes from existing franchisees acquiring new units.

To support its growing group of franchisees, the team has doubled the capacity of its Vancouver-based corporate office and is perfecting its “Browns-in-a-Box” franchise package — a set of manuals that outline and detail specific performance expectations. “The future of Browns in a Box may be a much smaller box containing a [computer] tablet,” adds Ward.

New franchisees undergo an intensive eight-week training program in one of its certified training locations, then receive support from an in-house training team after opening.  “The franchisee and their management team don’t have to worry about training initially — they worry about the restaurant being ready and taking care of the guests,” Ward explains.

On the culinary side, the team spends 80 per cent of its time perfecting existing items and 20 per cent developing new items. Last spring, it added street tacos to the menu, inspired by the latest food-truck craze. After observing tacos served from trucks in Los Angeles, Morison raced back to corporate office with an idea, and within a week, Browns’ new street tacos were being tested. Diners nosh on varieties such as red spice-rubbed chicken tacos with jack cheese, pico de gallo and jalapeño ranch dressing ($9) or crispy fish tacos with beer-battered halibut, pico de gallo, and jalapeño ranch dressing ($9).

When it comes to community service, local employees lead the charge by fundraising in their communities. Sporting mustaches, teams raised $8,000 for Movember, to benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation; other locations hosted a pajama drive, collecting more than 600 pairs of pajamas for children in need. Many locations also participate in the Dining-Out-For-Life program, which donates 25 per cent of sales on a specific day to support HIV/AIDS charities; it raised $10,000 in 2012.

The corporate office supports local franchisees interested in starting or donating to a charity, and the bottom-up approach gets locals excited. “It’s really about the franchise community engaging in their community,” Ward explains. “Whatever resonates for them — subject to a vetting process with us … whatever causes they are really passionate about, we allow them to go forward,” explains Ward.

So what’s next for the brand? Morison is planning a new under-600 calorie section of the menu. Additionally, preparations are underway to enter the Ontario market within three years. “We are a Canadian concept; we want to be throughout Canada,” says Morison, adding that he aspires to have similar success to Boston Pizza, but with even more units in smaller markets. “Our ultimate goal is to grow to a billion dollars in sales.”

image courtesy of Randall Cosco

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