Loading up the fries at Smoke’s Poutinerie
Smoke’s “has been clogging arteries since 2009,” says Ryan Smolkin, founder.
Ryan Smolkin’s fantasy world includes an imaginary friend who provides him with business advice. He says the mythical friend, named Smoke, proffers intelligence that has helped Smolkin expand his fast-growing restaurant chain, Smoke’s Poutinerie, to 84 units in Canada and one in the U.S., with many more units expected soon.
Sounding an awful lot like his friend/adviser, both share an affinity for the 1980s—mirrored aviators, lumberjack flannel and a love of the Canadian wilderness. Not just a trusted adviser, Smoke is also the namesake and legend behind the quick-service loaded fry concept about to make a big push into the United States and beyond.
During a profanity-laced interview that counts among this reporter’s most unusual, it was important to remember that Smoke is not real, even as the company’s founder and CEO talked about him as if he were flesh and blood.
“Smoke’s a rockstar, he’s an athlete, he’s been on the moon,” he said of his invisible counselor. “Smoke gives me all my advice. He speaks to me, talks to me, directs me … he’s my visionary, he’s my leader.”
Although Smolkin sounds a bit bizarre, his franchise is beginning to gain real-life traction, especially among franchisees who enjoy his unusual approach.
“Who’s on board the gravy train, baby?” asked an excited Smolkin, getting into the detailed plans for what he calls global domination.
While artery-clogging poutine (fries and cheese curds topped with gravy) has been big business for years in the Great White North, the Ajax, Ontario-based franchise has a plan based on four-walled restaurants and many non-traditional locations including food trucks and stands inside stadiums, universities and event centers.
“We created this wave, we are going crazy and we’re already 100 strong in five years—wait until you see the next five,” Smolkin, 41, said. “We created the wave and now all the other big boys are trying to catch up to me.”
As poutine has gone mainstream in Canada, Smolkin is on point about large-scale players chasing the wave. Poutine-inspired dishes are on the menu in places like Burger King, McDonald’s and A&W, as well as countless non-chain restaurants primarily in Canada’s eastern provinces.
More commonly known as loaded fries in the U.S., poutine can be made in an infinite variety of typically unhealthy permutations. Smoke’s menu lists 30 varieties, including a Chili Cheesesteak, Sriracha-doused Chicken Inferno and Double Pork Poutine.
Brushing off any health concerns inherent in the category, Smolkin adds that Smoke’s has “been clogging arteries since 2009,” and advises “if you’re on a diet, share it with a friend—it’s half the calories.”
Goofiness is a central part of the Smoke’s experience. Smolkin, who insists upon the title chief entertainment officer, says branding is the sauce separating good concepts from the herd.
A good role model
Fifteen minutes up the Lake Ontario shore from Ajax, Ian Hohol is a Smoke’s Poutinerie franchisee with two locations and a mobile catering trailer. He opened his first store in September 2013 and the second the following March. Hohol owns a local bar with two friends, but this is his first try at franchising.
True to its positioning, he first discovered Smoke’s after a night out partying in Toronto. He liked that the concept was different from the “oversaturated” burrito chains. “The line was 500 people deep,” he said. Upon meeting Smolkin, Hohol, 26, was impressed by his atypical personality, team leadership and wild enthusiasm for the brand.
“One way or another, you have to get down to business, too, but he does it in a fun way,” he said. “He’s good at being a role model, so he doesn’t really have a serious side, but he definitely has a business side.”
As Smolkin prepares to roll out his next brand, a related hotdog concept called Smoke’s Weinerie, Hohol is planning to open a location next to his original Oshawa poutine restaurant this summer.
California film producer Robert Parada, 39, opened Smoke’s first U.S. location in Berkeley in December, an admittedly green and health-conscious place for a loaded fry concept. Right in the heart of Berkeley’s entertainment district, Parada chose the location after scouting the area and walking around with the massive after-bar crowds.
It’s his first franchise, which he discovered after a night out in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In addition to the rock and roll coming from the speakers, packed store and club-like atmosphere, he also likes the concept’s small footprint, small staff and affordable pricing.
“Even though it was fast food, I fell in love with the fact that it was different,” Parada said. “A big part of it, too, was the branding—Ryan has great sensibilities for branding and marketing.”
He has purchased the rights to Northern California, and has the rights to build 20 to 50 Poutineries. With a demanding film career (see the movie “Taco Shop” coming soon), he is torn between two worlds, but very encouraged by the numbers of his first location.
Mark Cunningham, Smoke’s global chief business development officer, is the man behind the wheel of its operations team as it staffs up for the expansion in Canada, the U.S. and additional international markets. With 18 years under his belt at McDonald’s, as well as separate stints at coffee and pita brands, Cunningham is focused on attracting the de rigueur energetic, fun and focused staffers to prepare for the upcoming push into the states.
“The list of people taking an interest in the brand and making the first steps to come up here and see us and try the product is something I have not seen in the franchise development side of any brand for a long period of time,” he said. “That piqued my interest more than anything—this has lots of runway for us to get a strong base in Canada and grow that base outside of Canada and, really, outside of North America.”
Out of 800 total stores planned for the near future, Smolkin estimates 500 will be off-street, non-traditional locations. Cunningham says these multi-unit deals make it easier to hit its ambitious unit targets.
After its first U.S. restaurant in Berkeley, with more coming soon in California and the Southeast, Cunningham said the company will focus on states bordering the Great Lakes, which by design have a greater familiarity with Canadian culture, particularly poutine.
The company is also lining up prospects in the Middle East, and European countries including France, Holland, Finland, Germany and the U.K.
Poutine for the masses
While he clearly enjoys being the face of a fast-growing brand, as evidenced by a very colorful interview, Smolkin leaks fleeting shades of seriousness getting down to the details of the expansion.
“When you’re going at it at this pace, you have to make sure that you’re totally differentiated,” he said. “Everybody’s been eating loaded fries for decades, they just call it something different. All I’m doing is packaging it up, branding it and bringing poutine to the masses.”
And then the conversation turns back to Smoke.
“Whatever he tells me to do, I do,” Smolkin says. “He’s the man, he’s my third-party consultant, he’s the silent man behind the scenes, he’s my visionary, he’s my leader—I just do what I’m told.”