Smoke's Poutinerie, a fun-loving, hard-rocking QSR concept that celebrates the power of poutine to satisfy just about any craving one might have for a comforting dose of gut-bomb goodness.Ryan Smolkin set his sights on world domination. His ace in the hole? Poutine, Canada's beloved national dish that consists of a French fry base loaded with fresh cheese curds, brown gravy and any number of toppings. In 2008, Smolkin founded
The chain includes 130 units in Canada, including 70 opened last year, and is now set to grow even more rapidly in the U.S. Starting with its first unit in Berkeley, Calif., two years ago, Smoke's had opened five U.S. units by the end of 2016, including one in Hollywood, Calif., two in Tampa, Fla., and one in Glendale, Ariz. This year, Smoke's Poutinerie plans to open additional units in California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. All told, Smoke's plans to open 150 new U.S. units in 2017 and to hit the 250 mark in 2018. As for world domination, its goal is to have 1,300 locations worldwide by 2021.
Mark Cunningham, chief development officer, says all locations are franchised or operated via licensing agreements and that roughly 60 percent of new units will be in nontraditional market segments. "Over the past two-and-a-half years, we have ventured into colleges and universities, airports, amusement parks, zoos, sporting arenas," he says. "We started with arenas and stadiums in Canada and also the Toronto Zoo. They're very unique opportunities because you can potentially have multiple outlets at different locations within that single venue. That's in part what's contributing to our high unit expansion numbers. We're also continuing to develop traditional four-wall stores, but nontraditional has given us an opportunity to get our products in front of a larger audience and is helping us to kick-start our growth in the U.S." In fact, the company created a new internal division called Smoke's Poutinerie Sports & Entertainment, which focuses entirely on these nontraditional opportunities.
The simplicity of Smoke's Poutinerie's menu contributes to its successful track record in such venues. Poutine, available in snack, meal and "wow" sizes, serves as the sole attraction. The simplicity of the operation means that the actual time necessary to fill an order is less than the time it takes to place an order and pay, according to Cunningham. "We're able to get the products up very, very quickly," he says. "A lot of that is due to our own internal prep processes. We get potatoes in 50-pound bags, which have our buffalo plaid branding and which we use as part of our decor. We cut the fries and blanch them on-site. We make most of our
toppings in-house, and all of our proteins are served out of steam wells. We have three types of gravy — traditional, veggie and gluten-free peppercorn. If you have 30 people in line, they're all buying poutine that starts with the same base of fries, cheese curds and gravy. Then, it's just a matter of adding the desired toppings and you're done."
Guests can choose from nearly 30 variations on poutine in traditional locations, while nontraditional sites feature a condensed menu of top sellers. Menu options range from the simple, classic base to more elaborate versions with a diverse array of flavor profiles. Toppings range from pulled pork, bacon, Philly cheesesteak and chicken bacon ranch to "rainbow vegetarian" with guacamole, sour cream, cheese and Sriracha sauce.
With younger consumers as its core target customer base, the original business model skewed heavily toward late night. Some 40 percent of sales were generated between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and 80 percent of that was takeout, Cunningham says. The company's real estate strategy focused heavily on finding traditional locations of 1,000 to 1,200 square feet near bars, nightclubs, stadiums, arenas and university campuses.
More recently, however, lunch and dinner dayparts have grown, and with them, the percentage of customers who dine in. "As the brand has grown, it has become a solid three-daypart opportunity," Cunningham says. "We've begun moving out from downtown cores to suburban markets, so our sales in those locations, in particular, are shifting the model. That also has us increasing our footprint for traditional street locations to about 1,500 square feet so we can accommodate demand for more in-store dining."
Regardless of location, kitchen operations remain similar and open in design to give customers a look at the level of fresh preparation that the brand maintains. The kitchens depend on four to six fryers per unit as well as a range, flattop, oven and hot-well tables for toppings. Other key pieces of equipment include veggie sinks where staff cut the potatoes and refrigerators for holding the blanched fries.
Nontraditional locations range from stadium and arena outlets of 250 square feet — mostly counter space served by a back-of-the-house commissary kitchen — to 350- or 400-square-foot units on college and university campuses with centralized cashier stations and seating areas shared by a number of brands. Mobile food trucks and trailers provide still another opportunity for the brand to capitalize on opportunities in nontraditional venues. "We use them a lot in places like amusement parks and water parks," Cunningham says. "It's great because we can move them around as needed depending on weather. If it's a nice sunny day, we might move to the waterpark. If it's overcast, we can be somewhere else that's more likely to have higher sales."
Fronted by its mascot Smoke, who has an image as an '80s glam-rock-loving bad boy and gastronomical genius, the brand is banking on such flexibility, simplicity and well-honed systems to fuel rapid expansion across the U.S. — and, soon after, the world.