There’s no forgetting a conversation with the CEO and founder of Smoke’s Poutinerie, the exceedingly colorful Ryan Smolkin. It’s been a few years since checking in with the Canadian-based poutine brand and my first mission was getting an update on the so-called global domination that’s been his stated mission since starting the company more than a decade ago.
Lucky for this reporter, and the brand’s franchisees, Smolkin isn’t just entertainment even though he refers to Smoke’s as an entertainment concept. He’s also spent these recent years learning about franchising outside of North America, and learning the lessons everybody faces when growing a brand for the first time. Like gravy- and meat-loaded fries, such work is often sticky, gooey and might cause intestinal discomfort in some cases.
The good stuff is that even with a few closures under the company’s belt, Smoke’s Poutinerie has more than 150 locations open an operating—mostly in Canada and with four in the United States.
While the U.S. market is still a primary focus, especially locations near Big 10 campuses, the company is preparing to open its first Middle East restaurant in Qatar. It’s a multi-unit deal, with the second and third locations already “locked and loaded” in the words of the CEO. He is expecting deals throughout Europe, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, coming soon.
“Believe it or not, it’s been easier for us to be selling countries with huge multi-unit deals than it is singles for cities in North America,” Smolkin said. “Still heavy in Canada and the U.S., don’t get me wrong … but it’s global expansion. The global domination is happening, baby, it’s been preached for 9 years now and it’s finally here.”
Paraphrased and slightly toned down, he added that it’s scary business, but he’s clearly enjoying the ride and learning a lot throughout the process. Aside from the ins and outs of franchise regulations in various countries, part of the learning, of course, includes local tastes, cultures and preferences. In Qatar, for example, pork is off the menu. In general, outside of areas already familiar with poutine, the company leans on the easier-to-digest term of “loaded French fries.”
With brands like McDonald’s and Burger King adding poutine to the menu in certain markets, Smolkin feels like this highly indulgent food is catching on, which he sees as adding more logs to his backwoods-of-Ontario campfire.
Asked how his own life has changed as the brand has grown and matured, Smolkin says he’s spending a lot of time on airplanes—"tons, dude"—including an upcoming trip to London for a local franchise show. From there, it’s onward to Qatar, Germany and Hungary.
“When you see you’re growing, you’re expanding, you’re building something from nothing, it’s a rush,” he added. “That’s the whole reason you’re in on a game like that.”
Asked about some stumbles in the U.S. market, including the closure of locations in Ann Arbor, which has long been viewed as a key market on this side of the border.
He’s especially interested in adding locations in Austin, Texas, Boulder, Colorado, and Nashville, Tennessee. Boiled down, it’s the party towns and college markets that appear to be the ripest fruit for the brand. Should circumstances align, he’s open to opening company locations in highest-priority locations to build brand awareness. Smoke’s currently has 10 company-owned locations.
Reflecting on the inevitable lessons about finding franchisees who are a good fit for the brand, Smolkin said he’s learned such mistakes are inevitable, but not strictly negative experience.
“That’s going to happen. I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it happens,” he said. “For the greater good of the rest of the franchisees and other partners I have, we’ve got to take action, we’ve got to be there, and I didn’t grasp that in the early going.”
On the flip side, he added, he has been impressed with the professionalism of prospective international franchisees, especially groups in the Middle East.
“Not tire kickers, these are real investors who have multi-platforms, muti-brands, they know what they’re doing … so it’s really exhilarating when you can sit down and have so much interest,” he said. “They have a lot of skin in the game, so it’s gotta succeed, they’re going to put the resources behind it.”
For a flashback to one of my most memorable interviews, check out our story on Smoke's from the August 2015 issue of Franchise Times.