Diverse Tastes

Franchise systems that are taking Canadians on a global culinary adventure

Canada is one of the most diverse nations in the world. There’s perhaps no better measure of a nation’s ethnic diversity than its food offerings. Take a stroll down any major street in the country – from Halifax to Vancouver – and you’re sure to find a wide range of global flavours when you’re looking to grab a bite to eat. From a trip south of the border to Mexico to the blue seas of the Mediterranean, in Canada, a global culinary adventure is never too far away.

Here, Franchise Canada looks at a group of franchise systems that are serving up tastes from around the world.

Box Concepts Food Group

Box Concepts Food Group’s franchises serve high-quality, freshly prepared food in a fast casual environment. Wok Box Fresh Asian Kitchen offers flavours and favourite dishes from more than 10 Asian countries; Firecrust Custom Salads + Pizzas offers traditional Neapolitan pizza, salads, and shakes; and Hon’s Wonton House offers authentic Cantonese wonton that you’d find on the streets of Hong Kong.

“We stick to a simple and focused menu in each concept, which provides the food variety and guest experience of the specific core international food origin we are built around,” says Box Concepts Food Group CEO Lawrence Eade.

Wok Box opened in Edmonton in 2004, and now has more than 65 franchises across Canada. Firecrust followed in 2015, then Hon’s in 2018. All brands are expanding their geographical reach: Wok Box in the Prairies, Maritimes, and in Ontario’s mid-market cities; Firecrust in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan; and Hon’s in the Greater Vancouver area.

“As the overall retail landscape changes from in-store to online/e-commerce shopping, restaurants will be that place where customers physically come to have an experience,” says Eade. “So a large long-term benefit of running a food franchise of Box Concepts is that you will not be overtaken by e-commerce tomorrow.”

The primary challenge for the restaurant sector is recruiting, training, and keeping good staff, says Eade. “It is a very competitive marketplace, and employers need to provide a great workplace environment to win out over the competition. Franchises that do this well will succeed. We have a number of employee-focused programs that help franchisees recruit new crew members and train them for advancement and retention.”

Successful franchisees are self-motivated, energetic, personable and customer-centric, and have a passion for the business, says Eade. “We can train the systems, but we cannot train personalities.”

Initial training includes three weeks at a brand-specific corporate training location, and three weeks on-site in the new store. After launch, there is continued support, including monthly webinars and frequent site visits. Each brand has a dedicated go-to person for operations, and a marketing team that consistently generates content for feature programs, local marketing, targeted social media campaigns, and in-store influencer events.

“We are partners with our franchisees from the moment a franchise is awarded. We understand that our true customer is our franchisee, and we treat them as we want them to treat their customers,” explains Eade.

La Carnita

After spending time on the U.S. west coast, Andrew Richmond missed the Mexican street food that he’d enjoyed in the Mission District of San Francisco. So he opened a restaurant in Toronto that combined his strong passion for that cuisine with his equally strong passion for art and music. The result: La Carnita, a unique setting where patrons listen to mix tapes while enjoying a menu that ranges from churros, chorizo, and chicken to cocktails and beer.

“All of our restaurants are designed with the help of artists, and tap into the local creative community,” says Richmond, who co-owns the chain that now has six locations in Canada, one in the U.S., and one in Dubai. “The music is centred around new and old-school hip-hop, and the atmosphere is young and vibrant. There is a pop culture forward energy that comes through.”

While every location looks slightly different, and menus vary, the basic premise is the same: fun and fast-paced, with seating for 75 to 100 people, and a scratch kitchen where incredibly good food is made in-house.

Finding quality staff, especially back of house, can be challenging, says Richmond. “It’s all about treating people well so that they want to be there.” The franchise has supports in place to help new franchisees, and has even been known to “send in some warm bodies, if required. We outlay a lot of support up front and ongoing to help with their journey.”

The ideal franchisee has a passion and verve for the brand, restaurant experience, good people management and customer service skills, and the operating skills that are crucial to running a business efficiently. Richmond says La Carnita has no targeted new locations – it will depend on the people applying to be franchisees and whether they’re a good fit for the brand.

Successful franchisees will be prepared to commit the time and work needed to make their new locations flourish, says Richmond. “At the end of the day, it’s all about service, and creating an experience.”

Mr. Greek

Since its first location opened in 1988, Mr. Greek has taken its Toronto Greektown roots and planted them throughout the Greater Toronto Area. More than 30 years have passed since its inception, and Mr. Greek is now reinvigorating the brand in preparation of a five-year expansion plan that will see growth in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Peter Rakovalis, VP, Franchise Development & Operations, says that Mr. Greek will open eight to 10 restaurants in each of the next three years, then 15 to 20 per year over the subsequent two years. Some growth will come from existing franchisees becoming multi-unit owners, as the company views its franchisees as crucial business partners, and has a policy of supporting growth from within.

The ideal franchisee values great food, great service, and profitability. New franchisees receive everything that is needed to succeed – from the initial eight weeks of comprehensive training “from the heart of the house to front of house,” says Rakovalis, through on-site coaching and guidance in advance of and after opening. Franchisees then have access to regular visits from the operations team, quarterly regional meetings, and annual conferences.

“We have a very strong business model, a menu that speaks to all food preferences, and Greek food caters extremely well,” says Rakovalis. Catering is a strong revenue stream for Mr. Greek franchises, and the premium fast casual concept also generates robust in-restaurant and home delivery sales. It was one of the first restaurants to voluntarily list calories on its menus, and to ensure there were no tenderizers, chemicals or MSG added to the food.

Primarily, says Rakovalis, the franchisee must love the food. “Everybody loves a good Greek meal. If you love our food, you will really love our brand.”

Pacini

Almost 40 years ago, a tiny spaghetti restaurant, La boîte à spaghetti, opened in Quebec City. That was the starting point for a fine casual Italian restaurant chain, rebranded as Pacini in 1984, that is firmly established in Quebec and Alberta, and is now set to expand both east and west, into New Brunswick, Ontario, and British Columbia.

“Our culture attracts a specific type of franchisee,” says Nathalie Lehoux, Happy President. “Happiness at work has always been important, and this is a culture we have been working on. We want franchisees who are committed to taking care of the happiness and well-being of people – their staff and their guests.” Additionally, she says, the ideal franchisee will love the Italian table, be a passionate host and rigorous manager, and have a sense of humour.

The franchise offers a proven operations model, eight weeks of initial training for the manager, and specific training for other staff, with training and coaching taking place on-site at the new location. Restaurants are supported by marketing, HR, accounting, and other services on an ongoing basis. “Our main role is to support our franchisees in their restaurant’s operations,” says Lehoux.

The lack of human resources is a challenge for all restaurants, says Lehoux, and she predicts that will continue for the next 10 to 15 years. Pacini has a recognition plan that rewards different aspects of staff performance across all restaurants, and is proactive in promoting a “happy culture” where employees are valued and respected.

Pacini is developing new stand-alone restaurants, but also has a large focus on the conversion of existing hotel restaurants. Hotel owners want to run an on-site restaurant that is profitable, says Lehoux, and a trend that started in Europe is to have a recognized brand name. By operating a Pacini, she notes, “you have a restaurant that attracts not just travellers and visitors to the city, but local people, as well.”


By Kym Wolfe