Regional Company of the Year – Western Canada: Joseph Richard Group

Photo by Robert Karpa

Ryan Moreno and André Bourque are proof that friends can indeed make great business partners. The power duo, who have been best friends since grade four, have built Surrey, B.C.-based Joseph Richard Group (JRG) — the hospitality company they founded 10 years ago — into a thriving, ever-growing enterprise.

Today, JRG owns and operates 25 establishments in B.C. and Alberta, including seven Townhall public houses, as well as individually branded pubs Micky’s, The Henry, Oceanside, Oak & Thorne, Edith + Arthur, The Buck & Ear Bar & Grill and The Study — a pub at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus. The portfolio also includes three S+L Kitchen and Bar locations; The Italian Osteria & Cheese Bar; three private liquor stores; The Steveston Cafe and Hotel; and a catering arm, Blank Canvas Catering, which launched in late 2018. In the last year, JRG increased its revenue eight per cent for total sales of $51 million.

“The mantra at the company is that we base all our businesses around the guest experience and that’s how we’ve found success,” says Moreno, CEO of JRG. “Whenever we look at a project, we look at it from the lens of what the guest is going to experience — from the look and feel, to the ambiance and vibe, to the food offering and service we provide. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but that’s really our guiding principle.”

Moreno and Bourque began working in the hospitality industry when they were teenagers. At age 19, they went to bartending school and, after working as bartenders, launched their own bartending school in 1997 called Barmasters. In 2002, they parted ways to launch their own ventures: Bourque purchased a failing nightclub and Moreno bought a restaurant from his then-girlfriend’s uncle, who was retiring. Neither venture worked out as they’d hoped.

“It started off really well, but I made a lot of mistakes and didn’t do all the homework I should have,” says Moreno. And while Bourque managed to turn the nightclub business around, the property was sold and the nightclub closed. “The nightclub had been doing really well, so [when it closed], we needed a place for all these kids to go,” recalls Bourque, who serves as principal of Joseph Richard Group. “That’s when Ryan and I started talking.”

In 2006, the friends became business partners once again, opening a nightclub called Vanilla Room in Langley, B.C., which didn’t have much of a nightlife scene at the time.

“Young families were moving here and whenever there was a birthday or a celebration, everyone would hop into a limo or bus and go [to] downtown [Vancouver] because there was nothing here,” says Moreno. Three years later, they founded Joseph Richard Group (the name comes from Moreno and Bourque’s middle names) and opened more nightclubs: the Joseph Richard in Vancouver, The Standard in New Westminster, The Social in South Surrey and Motel in Vancouver.

Although JRG is now out of the nightclub business, Moreno and Bourque’s knack for identifying gaps and opportunities in the market has been a huge key to their success. In 2011, JRG branched out into the pub business, opening the first Townhall location in Langley. “Most of the pubs in our area were from the 1980s or ’90s and had been around for a long time and the clientele was a bit older. We thought, ‘why aren’t there pubs here that cater to people in their 20s and 30s, that have great food, a trivia night and dancing on the weekends?” says Bourque. “If people wanted to do that, they’d have to go to downtown Vancouver. So, we felt there was a need for an elevated pub experience with great food and a high service standard. There are pubs like this all around now, but we saw a need in our community and decided to expand quickly.”

Their plan was to build a brand they could open in different cities, much like any restaurant chain, that would be uniform and part of a bigger group. As Townhall expanded, JRG also rolled out the individually branded pubs. “We didn’t want to saturate the market with a whole bunch of Townhalls,” says Moreno. “Sometimes locations became available that we felt really good about, but a Townhall was close by or it wasn’t a far drive. So, it gave us an opportunity to still go into that community and provide a different offering and design some different menu items.”

In 2016, JRG launched its S+L steak-and-seafood concept (S+L stands for steak and lobster), with the goal of bringing an upscale experience people in the Fraser Valley would expect to find downtown, but in a more casual setting. Some of the elevated offerings include craft cocktails, a “knife club” that provides loyal customers with their own personalized steak knives and signature menu items such as Wagyu Flat Iron and Master Chicken. Chef David Jorge, winner of MasterChef Canada, season two, joined JRG as corporate chef when the S+L brand was being created and was a key part of the menu creation. In fact, the Master Chicken dish actually won him the MasterChef competition.

In keeping with JRG’s focus on industry shifts and changing consumer needs, the company launched an ambitious foray into food delivery this past April. The “ghost-restaurant” concept, called Meal Ticket Brands, involves repurposing JRG’s existing kitchen spaces to make offerings that are only available through online ordering, delivered by a third-party service. JRG’s culinary team developed eight new food brands — including Obey Poke, Stak’d Sandwich Co., Frsh Frys, Power Plant Greens and Sweet Tooth Desserts — and it continues to plan and test new concepts.

“We’re always trying to be ahead and be on top of what’s happening in the industry,” says Moreno. “A couple of years ago, we saw the emergence of third-party delivery services and this is the single-biggest [disruptor] in our industry at the moment. And, in my opinion, it’s not a fad, it’s not a trend. This is happening.”

That said, Moreno doesn’t think online-delivery platforms are going to eliminate the need for nice restaurants. “But, there are times of the week when people want to sit at home, not get ready, not go out and want good food delivered to their house.”

The ghost-restaurant concept can also help restaurants cope with rising real-estate and labour costs, as well as the increased cost of goods. “Restaurants and pubs have to be able to find those extra streams of revenue to bolster the business,” says Moreno. “We’re plowing a lot of our time into that and see this as the next wave in the evolution of our industry. There hasn’t been a huge disruption like this [since I’ve been in the business]. So, like anything else, we want to make sure we’re at the forefront and can leave our mark if we can.”

Another highlight of 2019 was the acquisition of the management and operations of Glass House Estate Winery in Langley. The de Jong family, which started the winery in 2015, continues to own the property, while JRG operates the vineyard and winery. “There was an opportunity in our backyard and a great family that we’ve gotten to know over the years, so it was a great fit,” says Moreno.

This year also saw the opening of Stanley Park Brewing Restaurant and Brewpub. The establishment, located in a historic building in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, is owned by Labatt, while JRG manages the food operations. “It’s doing fantastic and it’s got us excited to do more in Vancouver,” says Bourque.

What else is in store for JRG? Bourque says the company is looking to open more campus pubs, as well as expand the S+L brand. JRG is also opening a new restaurant called Sudo Asian Kitchen later this year, as well as a new concept in the former Roosters Country Cabaret — an iconic spot in the Fraser Valley. JRG is also looking at revamping some of its pubs to reflect different needs in the communities.

Giving back to the communities it serves is also important to JRG. The company supports a variety of charitable organizations, including B.C. Cancer Society, The B.C. Covenant House and many local food banks. In 2017, JRG employees participated in the first annual JRG Sleep Out, which saw them spend a night sleeping on the street, raising more than $115,000 for Covenant House. In the second year, JRG raised more than $160,000 for Youth Unlimited. This past March, the company announced a partnership with Variety — The Children’s Charity. To start, JRG will support Variety’s Show of Hearts Telethon and One Night in the Valley gala and expects to do more in the future.

Reflecting on 2019 as a whole, Moreno says, like any year in the hospitality industry, there are wins and challenges. “But if I had to sum up 2019, it’s been a huge year for the company because it was really a year of diversification,” he says. “We still stayed within our lane and didn’t go off into something totally left field, but it was nice to see a culmination of all of our efforts.”

Written by Rebecca Harris

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