At Smoke’s Poutinerie, you could say that being Weird, Wild and Wacky is a prerequisite for opening your own franchise. The unique Canadian brand, which was founded in 2008 by Ryan Smolkin, has expanded into a national phenomenon with 150 locations and counting across the country. Still, the growing franchise won’t take just anyone.
Smolkin has built the brand with consumers’ entertainment and love of poutine in mind, which means careful consideration has been made to ensure new franchise partners understand the company culture. Franchisees must be committed to helping the franchise achieve what they call “GLOBAL DOMINATION!”, all while serving customers a wide-range of delicious poutine with an outgoing personality and an affection for the unconventional.
For Cheryl Howlett and her husband Bill, stepping into this world couldn’t have been easier. When the Howletts met Smolkin in 2011 at the Canadian Franchise Association’s Franchise Canada Show, they were immediately drawn to Smoke’s Poutinerie.
“We kept coming back to the Smoke’s Poutinerie booth,” Howlett reflects. “I was completely sold on Ryan and his business acumen and my husband was sold on the model and the brand. So, it was a little bit of a no-brainer. It’s where we naturally fit.”
In less than a year of their first meeting, the Howletts opened their location in St. Catharines, Ontario. Having successfully been operating the franchise for the last seven years, the husband and wife duo know their way around the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry and are grateful for the freedom that comes with being their own boss.
A typical day
Though the veteran franchisees have enough experience to tell you what it takes to find success within a Smoke’s Poutinerie franchise, it doesn’t mean running the business is always smooth sailing. Still, with twin daughters at home, the Howletts have managed to find a schedule that works for their family’s needs.
Generally working the weekday shifts, Bill gets to the Poutinerie at 9:00 a.m., ensuring everything is in order before officially opening the doors at 11:00 a.m. Cheryl will come in at 5:00 p.m. to take over the late-night shifts, which includes Fridays and Saturdays when closing time is 4 o’clock in the morning.
In-between helping their seven employees serve customers, the hands-on owner-operators spend their days reviewing inventory, scheduling staff, and conducting ongoing training. Though days are always busy, especially around the dinner and late-night rushes, Howlett says it’s nothing compared to what life was like during the first few months.
“It was absolutely crazy,” she says. “Bill would go in first thing in the morning while I stayed home with the kids. When I’d get in, we’d high five, I’d let him know what the kids were having for dinner and then I would get ready to close.”
The tag team operation eventually slowed down, though Howlett realized some of the challenges to running the business would never disappear entirely.
“I had worked for franchisees, QSRs, and even managed a few restaurants on my own before we invested in Smoke’s Poutinerie, so I felt pretty confident in my abilities,” Howlett says. “Bill had always worked customer service, so we figured it couldn’t be that hard. Now we laugh at ourselves because there’s lot more to running a business than most people realize.”
One of the ongoing challenges the duo faces revolves around staffing. Between September and April, the owners rely heavily on students who attend the nearby Brock University. Though the summer months are still busy, Howlett says she can’t justify putting three to four people on one shift. As such, balancing the schedule to ensure all employees get an equal number of shifts can be a difficult task to meet each week.
Yet, the challenges that may come with working in the QSR sector are nothing compared to the benefits. Interacting with customers fits perfectly with Howletts’ outgoing and personable demeanor. Couple this with the frequent occurrence of watching skeptical, first-time poutine eaters try the Canadian delicacy, Howlett says she finds joy in working for the franchise, which she hasn’t found anywhere else.
“I love it when a customer comes in and they look at the menu for the first time,” she says. “And then, when they try the poutine they’re amazed. We get a lot of exchange students from Brock, and because we’re close to the border, quite a few Americans drop by as well. When they try the poutine they can’t believe they don’t have it back home!”
A new adventure
Like many prospective franchisees, Howlett’s investment into franchising came from a desire to take charge of her career and a need to find a balance between her personal and professional lives.
After her twin daughters were born premature, Howlett spent countless months in and out of SickKids Hospital in Toronto, making frequent trips to the city every week from her home in nearby Newmarket. By the time her maternity leave was ending, she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep up the busy schedule with her current job.
“Not everyone was going to bend for our hours,” Howlett says. “That’s when we started looking into franchising and went to the Franchise Canada Show.”
When it came down to choosing a location for their Smoke’s Poutinerie franchise, the Howletts had several options. Neighboring Barrie made the most sense for the family, however opening west of Toronto in Guelph, Hamilton or St. Catherines were also viable options. Knowing that finding success with the franchise was still an uncertainty, the Howletts decided to go all in.
“We thought, if we’re going to make this kind of a life change and throw all our eggs in one basket, let’s move. Let’s make it an adventure,” Howlett says. “So that’s what we did. We picked up our lives, moved, and never looked back.”
The taste of freedom
Starting a new life in a new location is no easy venture, yet Howlett says the St. Catharines community has welcomed her family and the Smoke’s Poutinerie franchise with open arms. The unwavering support received not only on a personal level, but professional one as well, has encouraged the business owners to give back any way they can.
Most notably, the franchisees are using their small business status in partnership with Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold to assist underprivileged individuals. The freedom that comes with being a franchise partner, especially one with Smoke’s Poutinerie, means owners are able to invest their time and money into causes that matter most to them.
“It’s really important to us that we invest in community events,” Howlett says. “In keeping with the Smoke’s Poutinerie brand, we don’t want to do anything too normal, but we also want to make sure we are finding creative ways to incorporate our business in community initiatives. They’re giving us so much, it’s our small way of showing our appreciation.”
Having the freedom to do this is one of the reasons Howlett says she and her husband have found success. And if anything, her experiences have taught her to trust the system and take advantage of the support.
“I can’t say enough about the support we get from our Global Headquarters,” she says. “Ryan isn’t just a franchisor to us. I can call him day or night if I have a question or a concern. It’s one of the things that makes this brand so great. It’s still a lot of hard work, but if you’re interested, absolutely do it!”
By Kristin Di Tommaso