Picture enjoying a donair on the historic Halifax waterfront, a BeaverTail pastry surrounded by nature in Banff, or a loaded poutine after a day on the slopes in Mont-Tremblant – distinctly Canadian food experiences in Canadian locales. Here are three franchises that are treating Canadians and food-lovers everywhere to these ‘true north’ tastes.
“BeaverTails started humbly in 1978 as a tasty product,” says President & CEO Pino Di Ioia. “Over time, we opened stores in tourist areas that were destinations, like on a mountain top or on the Rideau Canal. We had a unique product and unique locations – it was the perfect storm.”
Di Ioia himself has a long history with the company. He and his co-owners (his wife and his twin brother) all started out as employees at the brand’s second location at an amusement park in Montreal.
The three signed on as franchisees in the 1990s as the franchise expanded rapidly. By the early 2000s, the Di Ioias were asked to take over the 100-location system and restructure it. They scaled back to about 65 locations and, in 2009, became majority owners in the company. After a few years of slower growth, BeaverTails has ramped up expansion again.
“We’ve brought the number of locations to almost 140, and we are opening 20 to 25 stores per year,” explains Di Ioia. “Our BeaverTails pastry is always going to be our signature, but we’ve now rounded it out with ice cream, poutine, and hot and cold beverages.”
Because BeaverTails is a non-traditional food service franchise, its expansion strategy is a bit different, as well. “We’ve focused on four key areas: traditional tourist towns and locations; a mobile ‘treat fleet’ that brings BeaverTails food trucks to fairs, festivals, and events; food service partners who license the brand at amusement parks and zoos; and the newest one, outlet malls,” says Di Ioia. “For many franchises, location is important. For us, it is absolutely the number one thing.”
BeaverTails looks for hands-on, fun-loving franchisees. “Franchisees have got to be involved in it. Our seasons tend to be shorter, winter or summer only, and franchisees are completely immersed,” explains Di Ioia.
New franchisees prepare for opening with training in Montreal and at the new location. From there, business coaches stay in close contact through site visits and an intranet that keeps everyone in the company connected.
“We’re a one-of-a-kind business that operates in fun and festive environments,” says Di Ioia. “We have fun with our franchisees, and they have fun with their staff and customers. It works best when you approach it that way.”
When Peter Nahas, along with his brother and his business partner, noticed that on many menus the Halifax donair played a supporting role, the three successful East Coast entrepreneurs decided to make it the star.
“We’d always noticed that donairs weren’t properly treated at most places that sell pizza and wings and other late-night favourites. They were not the focus. We realized no one was doing anything donair-centric,” says Nahas.
That gave them the idea. Then the ideal location presented itself. “One became available at ‘Pizza Corner,’ and we pounced on it,” Nahas says, referring to the famous intersection in downtown Halifax that gained notoriety amongst late-night clientele for featuring a pizza place on each corner. “At that point, we didn’t even have a name. Our landlord is a man named John Kamoulakos, and his name rang a bell with us. It turns out it’s because he and his brother were the ones who started the Halifax donair as restaurant owners decades ago. So we asked him if we could name our restaurant after him, as a ‘tip-of-the-hat’ to the history of the donair.”
Kamoulakos agreed and, three years ago, the brand started churning out the local favourite – a twist on the traditional gyro or doner kabab that switches out lamb for spiced beef and includes a sweet and garlicky sauce. Johnny K’s serves both the original and Nova Scotian variations.
For those looking to join the team as a multi-unit investor or hands-on single-unit owner, business and management experience is a must. “We want someone who wants to grow the brand, and is as passionate as we are,” says Nahas. Training starts with two weeks in Halifax, and then three weeks at the new franchise location, along with ongoing support in areas like marketing, system support, and training. “We can recreate what we’ve done in Halifax to any city in Canada. We’ve created brand awareness for people who know about the donair, and those who don’t.”
The company is focusing on Alberta and Ontario for its first franchises, and is aiming to have a location in downtown Toronto by late 2017.
“Though we’re a new brand, we have over 50 years of industry experience between us,” Nahas points out. “Johnny K’s is a combination of our experience and taking the donair back to its roots, starting from Halifax’s most iconic corner.”
“We like to say we’ve been clogging arteries since 2009,” says Smoke’s Poutinerie Founder Ryan Smolkin. “I ran the first shop myself at Adelaide and University in Toronto. From there, we crushed it, going from one to 10 locations in the second year. Franchising was the perfect format for the growth I envisioned. And seven years later, here we are with 150 locations built from scratch.”
Smolkin points out that while there is much debate over the genesis of the classic Quebecois specialty of fries, cheese curds, and gravy, the origin of the all-poutine poutinerie is clearer.
“We made up the word ‘poutinerie.’ We came up with putting everything you can think of on top of fries and gravy,” he says. “It’s a strong brand with a great product with proven results – BOOM – a unique Canadian food experience that will entertain the world. I always say that anyone can make fries and gravy, but not everyone can make it an experience.”
Smolkin and his team have brought that experience across North America to traditional storefront locations and non-traditional spaces like sports arenas, university campuses, and airports, as well as events (like their World Poutine Eating Championship) via food trucks. “Next is the U.K., Australia, Europe, Asia, Middle East. Total world domination!” says Smolkin, adding that there are still communities in Canada and the U.S. to fill in. “In some places, we’re only in the non-traditional locations or only in one city in an area and, really, we should be everywhere. Like, our store in Sudbury is doing great, so why not have one in North Bay? We haven’t even scratched the surface of the opportunities out there.”
Smolkin looks for franchisees that fit the culture. “I want people who believe in the brand and really get it. They need to be driven, passionate, hard-working – all the clichés that are clichés for a reason.”
Once on board, new franchisees receive a minimum of two weeks of training both before and after the location opens. “It’s really important to us that they go out ready. We have to differentiate ourselves, and to do that we need people who are bringing that weird, wild, and wacky experience to their store.
“It’s a fun ride on the gravy train.”
By Lauren d’Entremont