With a knack for knowing what customers want, a focus on the basics of hospitality and a commitment to continual evolution, Bus Fuller built one of Canada’s most beloved restaurant concepts: Earls. The family-owned chain put casual dining on the map in Canada and now has 57 locations across Canada and nine in the United States.
The Fuller family’s restaurant empire also includes Joey Restaurants, founded by Bus’ son Jeff Fuller in 1992. The casual-dining chain now has 23 locations in Canada and four in the U.S. (L.A. and Seattle). Jeff served as the founding president and CEO of Joey before handing over the reins to Al Jessa, who became president of Joey in 2016. His brother Mo Jessa has been president of Earls since 2013, taking over from another of Bus’s sons, Stan Fuller. (Stan and Jeff retain their CEO positions.)
Born in Cincinnati in 1928, Leroy Earl “Bus” Fuller was the son of a hard-rock miner. The family moved around to different mining towns in the U.S. before settling in Sunburst, Mont., where Fuller finished high school. He worked as a machinist for the Texas Company, served in the Korean War and eventually opened the Green and White drive-in with his wife, Marilyn, in 1954.
As Fuller recalled in a recent video made about his life and the history of Earls, his late wife is the one who got him into the restaurant business. “She worked at a drive-in restaurant,” he says. “And I take a lot of credit for where the company is and how it got started, but if it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think there would have been any company…She was the one that had the experience. She’s the one I sat down with and decided that we’d build this first Green and White drive-in. And my wife and I ran it for two years and it changed my life.”
The couple put in long days — with Fuller working at both the restaurant and the refinery — but their hard work paid off. “That first year, we did $32,000 and I made more money at that little restaurant than I did working at the Texas Company 40 hours a week, 51 weeks a year,” says Fuller. “So, I figured [the restaurant industry] was probably a pretty good thing to get into.”
They ran the Green and White (named after the colours of the building) for about two years, before Fuller seized his next opportunity. His brother-in-law had purchased a new A&W franchise in Conrad, Mont. It was doing fairly well, Fuller recalls, so he thought he’d take a run at doing an A&W. With his young family, Fuller headed north to become a franchisee in Edmonton, eventually building 10 locations there. He later had the opportunity to buy out the A&W franchisee for Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. So in 1968, Fuller moved to Vancouver, where he still resides today.
Over the next few years, Fuller grew the A&W chain to 47 locations in B.C. and Alberta, opened a steakhouse concept called Corkscrew and created a new 24-hour coffee-shop concept called Fuller’s. In the early 1980s, Fuller was running approximately 100 restaurants through his company, Controlled Foods, when he and his partners decided to take it public. But, the Fuller’s concept began to struggle and Controlled Foods wasn’t growing, so they sold the company.
In 1982, Fuller hit the bullseye: a laid-back burger-and-beer restaurant called Earls, which he opened in Edmonton with his son, Stan. Fuller says he was inspired by casual chains in the U.S. such as Chili’s, and Earls was the introduction and forerunner to casual dining in Canada. “If you think back, there wasn’t a lot of casual dining at that time,” says Fuller. “You either went somewhere that was fast, or you went to some really fancy restaurant in a hotel.”
Earls was a simple concept, with about 16 menu items and beer only — no wine or spirits. Burgers were made from scratch and fresh-to-order (which wasn’t common in the early ’80s) and beer came from small craft brewers, all at an affordable price. The fun, relaxed atmosphere was geared towards young people, who were welcome to come in wearing jeans and ball caps.
From the get go, it was a hit. “Fuller’s [coffee shop] was doing about $16,000 a week, which isn’t a lot,” says Fuller. “We opened the Earls and it was doing about $75,000 a week.”
The Fullers opened their second Earls location in Vancouver in 1984. The company expanded throughout B.C. and Alberta in the ’90s, and into Ontario in 2008 with a location in Mississauga. There are now 57 locations across Canada and 10 in the U.S., including Miami, Orlando, Dallas and Boston.
Fuller gives credit to A&W for his go-getter approach to expansion. When he started with A&W, he was required to build four restaurants in Edmonton — not just one — and ended up building 10. “That philosophy carried forward when I got into the Earls program,” Fuller says. “It’s just another site to build another restaurant. I attribute a lot of that to my start in A&W and their philosophy of giving out cities at that time instead of individual franchises and encouraging you to be more of a businessman [rather] than just a drive-in operator.”
As Earls grew over the years, the menu became more sophisticated, with globally inspired dishes and menus tailored to local markets. The decor also changed to reflect a more grown-up atmosphere, with a more contemporary, West-Coast design. (The very first Earls in Edmonton was bright green and white, patio furniture was used indoors to save costs and the place was decorated with brightly coloured paper maché parrots.)
“We’re constantly changing,” says Fuller. “We have a test kitchen that has three chefs and all they do is test products. I’m sure with any chain of any size, you’re constantly seeing what the new trends are, trying to figure it out ahead of time before everybody else figures it out, to get it on your menu.”
While the menu and decor has evolved, what hasn’t changed is Earls’ focus on the basics of hospitality. Fuller says the secret to success in the restaurant industry is simply food and service. “That’s really what it amounts to,” he says. “There are so many choices now that you’d be better be right [when it comes to choosing a concept]. We spend [a lot of money] on pre-opening, training staff and making sure he restaurant is ready to open and we can handle the restaurant if it fills 100 per cent. So, we try to really pay attention to that…They can say it’s all about location, location, location, but it’s also detail, detail, detail.”
Fuller hasn’t been involved in day-to-operations for the past 10 years or so, but he remains chairman of Earls Restaurants and attends every new restaurant opening. These days, he’s a “snowbird” who spends much of his leisure time playing golf in Arizona. “I also do a lot of fishing and a little hunting with my boys,” he says. (Fuller’s two other sons are Stewart and Clay.)
“I was pretty busy when I first started this business, so I missed some time with my kids when they were growing up,” says Fuller. “But as an adult, I’ve probably spent more time with them than most fathers. We work together, we hunt together and we fish together, so it’s been really enjoyable for me.”
Looking back on his success in the restaurant business, Fuller says, “It’s mind-boggling, it really is, when you think about my background, although I’ve been involved in the food business for about 60 years, you don’t even notice the growth; you just keep moving forward.”
Written by Rebecca Harris