Ask a Canadian to name a franchise and chances are it will be Tim Hortons. With 3453 locations across the country, its homegrown success is legendary. But for the most part, when we think about franchises, we picture an American brand that finally ventures across the border. With 2945 and 1400 restaurants respectively, Subway and McDonald's are two of the most successful US companies to make inroads into our appetites. Many others have also trekked north of the 49th parallel, most recently including Smashburger, a favourite for those who relish a higher-end fast food option.
But a curd-covered, gravy-soaked Canadian upstart is giving them all a run for hungry Canuck money. Ryan Smolkin had no experience with the food industry or franchises when he opened Smoke's Poutinerie in Toronto in late 2008. Since then, he has launched 60 franchises across the nation. Smoke's Poutinerie has grown more rapidly than Subway or McDonalds did in their first four years. It's also breaking with franchise tradition.
"The way I've expanded, every single person in the franchise world would slap me in the head," says Ryan. "Normally, it's slow growth and geographic growth. In our case, our first spot was Toronto, so usually you'd expand a little outside of Toronto, then Ontario. No — we're coast to coast. After Toronto, it was Winnipeg, then Halifax, then Vancouver. I wanted to own the country. And to do that I wanted to own each city separately, then let each one balloon out from there. That's what happening now. The strategy has worked."
Unlike the management of Smashburger, which is carefully nurturing its introduction to Canadian consumers with a corporate-owned restaurant, Smolkin has no such plans for his poutine push into the US market. He's already inked a deal for multiple units in Southern California, but it will be the American investment group who brings Quebec's comfort food to LA, not him.
Ryan receives hundreds of franchise requests from around the globe each year. Currently he's entertaining offers from investors to sell his poutine experience in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He's not surprised there's a craving for the French Canadian staple in other cultures. "Everyone has loaded fries. They just call it something different."
Thirteen original owners of the Poutineries now operate multiple units. But Ryan acknowledges the restaurant's rapid expansion has risks for a young brand still building a reputation as a profitable business. "If a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons closes, nobody really bats an eye. But if I shut down one or two locations, it would hurt me exponentially."
After creating the concept that brings the flavour of the Eighties to gravy fries and curds, Ryan did everything at the first restaurant, from cleaning the fryers to pulling all-nighters to serve post-nightclub crowds. Now, even though he's out of the kitchen, he's actively involved in researching and targeting new locations to ensure success for his franchisees. As the sole owner of the company, he deals with many of them personally, unlike many corporations offering franchise opportunities.
However, in one major way, Smoke's Poutinerie is the same as every other successful franchise operation: it's all about the brand. Just like anyone investing in a Tim Hortons or a Subway, if a person wants to build a Smokes franchise, he or she must completely buy into the brand.
"We're not serving fries, curds and gravy — anyone can serve that," says Ryan. "What we're serving is a brand. That's why we're successful."