By most people’s standards, Warren Erhart’s first foray into the world of food service was fairly tame, even formulaic: the young Erhart worked at McDonald’s as a teen.
Putting in long hours at the famous Golden Arches to make some extra pocket money was hardly unique. In fact, working at any restaurant is somewhat ubiquitous for young people, says Erhart. Twenty-two per cent of Canadians’ first jobs are in food service, so it’s an experience shared by many, he notes.
While that may be, the comparison ends there. Unlike most Canadians, Erhart’s early experience led him to a career in the food service business, and a steady climb to head one of Canada’s leading West Coast restaurant brands: White Spot and Triple O’s. He has now been with White Spot Hospitality for more than two decades, most of which has been spent in the position of President and CEO.
Erhart’s restaurant career got its start when he accepted a position at The Keg after completing his studies in commerce and hotel restaurant management, and he honed many of his food service business skills while working at the famous steakhouse chain. “I spent 15 years with The Keg in various capacities, which gave me an excellent opportunity to really understand a lot of the disciplines within the organization,” says Erhart.
The company’s visionary founder, George Tidball, instilled in Erhart the importance of the guest experience, a critical lesson he carries with him to this day. “George understood that it was all about the guest,” he says. “He was a great mentor to me and a lot of other people in the restaurant industry, and that really paved the way for me.”
Erhart wore a number of different hats at The Keg. He was a multi-unit area partner in southern Ontario when fate intervened in the early ‘90s, and he was offered a position with White Spot on the West Coast. Eager to move back to B.C., where he had attended school, Erhart packed his bags and booked a flight to Vancouver.
Erhart began his work at White Spot as a Division General Manager. However, the company soon restructured, offloading its ancillary businesses, including a commissary, catering company, and rights to Kentucky Fried Chicken. This boded well for Erhart, who was appointed the company’s new President and CEO, a move largely driven by its renewed focus on its namesake White Spot brand. “With my background and experience in full service restaurants, it was fortunate timing,” says Erhart of his quick rise up the corporate ladder. “It was about being at the right place at the right time.”
The new President embarked on a major rehaul of the popular White Spot brand, refashioning it into a more premium family casual restaurant concept from what was basically a coffee shop. That said, it wasn’t just any coffee shop. The brand had an exceptionally long history, and a fiercely loyal following in B.C. It was in 1928 that the first White Spot restaurant was opened on Granville Street in Vancouver by a gentleman named Nat Bailey. A budding restaurateur, Bailey had earlier operated a travelling lunch counter out of his 1918 Model T. His bricks-and-mortar restaurant was a success from the get-go.
Erhart knew he had to tread carefully when reshaping such an iconic, historic brand. “We didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he says. Similarly, he realized the time had come to refine and update the White Spot concept, and there was no turning back. “One of the biggest challenges was being strong enough to understand that you can’t be all things to all people. Along the way, we upset some folks, but we had to keep persevering. The data was there to support our decision,” notes Erhart.
An executive chef was brought on board to improve and expand the menu beyond the usual fast-food burgers and fish and chips. Also introduced were full bars with house cocktails, VQA wines, and craft beers. The branding was modernized, and the restaurant’s interior design and staff uniforms refashioned. “The goal was to create a more ambient atmosphere with quality food offerings, and we succeeded. We moved from a coffee shop format to a vibrant family casual restaurant,” he says. “It took three to five years before we reached our goal, and it’s something we can all feel proud of.”
Erhart likens the transformation to an “ongoing revolution,” noting that a business needs to constantly evolve and improve to be successful. He points to the company’s more recent investment in new technology to streamline its system and modernize its operations. White Spot uses the “smart kitchen” to coordinate cooking times, and regularly mines data from online guest reviews and surveys to guide its menu choices. The company also has an online learning management system to supplement staff training. “We’re not an industry known for using a lot of technology, but that’s changed,” says Erhart. “It’s a very competitive business, and we always have to find ways to remain relevant.”
The White Spot CEO was part of the team that first franchised the brand in 1992, and today there are 40 franchised locations in Canada, as well as 26 corporate stores, with all but one restaurant located in B.C. (the other is in Alberta). It also has a successful fast casual hamburger chain called Triple O’s, with 67 Triple O’s franchises now on its roster, including eight in Asia. The company moved into the region to target its growing Canadian-expat market. Today, its three most successful locations are in Hong Kong. Combined, the company’s restaurants served in excess of 17 million guests last year.
While both brands are principally situated in their home province of B.C., White Spot is eyeing the Prairie Provinces as a logical point of expansion. They are also looking to increase White Spot’s hotel business. The company has opened a number of White Spot restaurants in mid-range hotels, including Sheraton Four Points, Best Western, Coast Hotel, and Holiday Inn Express, which benefit from its strength in all three dayparts: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
When signing on new talent, Erhart looks for people who can work with the White Spot business model and, more importantly, who have a passion for the restaurant business and its guests. “The success of our brand starts off with it being a people story,” says Erhart. “We partner with the best, then you train [franchisees and staff] the best, expect the best, and create an environment where individuals can do a great job. That’s the strength of our brand.”
In today’s world of quick career switches and short-lived company loyalty, Erhart’s climb up a dedicated career ladder in a chosen industry is a bit of an anomaly. It speaks to his determination, as well as his passion for the restaurant business, which has only grown with the years. “I’m very blessed to find a career that I love,” says Erhart. “It’s an industry where no two days are alike, and I still really enjoy the energy.”
That said, it’s not every food service professional that bears the responsibility of running a restaurant nearing its 90th anniversary. Not only has Erhart proven himself up to the task, he’s also paved the way for more successful years ahead.
“When you work for a brand that represents such a love affair in the province, you feel a strong sense of responsibility to make sure that things are around for another 90 years,” reflects Erhart. “I feel that responsibility, and I thrive on the fact that this brand is important to people.”
By Roma Ihnatowycz