Every night the corporate office of Smoke’s Poutinerie in Toronto receives a fax from the boss, an enigmatic hermit known simply as Smoke. The ’80s-obsessed culinary genius sends his instructions from the wilderness near the border of Quebec and Ontario, where he dreams up new and unusual flavor combinations while playing Atari and arranging his vast collection of Cabbage Patch Kids and He-Man action figures.
That’s the legend that Ryan Smolkin, the branding veteran who founded Smoke’s, likes to tell about his 100-unit poutine franchise. But the real secret behind the fast-growing business he launched in 2008 is a combination of french fries, gravy, cheese curds and clever marketing.
Smoke’s has taken poutine, the snack staple developed in Quebec, and put it at the center of the plate, adding pulled pork, bacon, chicken, Philly cheesesteak and more than a dozen other toppings to the french-fry base, transforming the decadent concoction into a full meal. “When we started, we were very focused on the 18-to-25 crowd in university towns coming to us after the bars,” says Smolkin. “But now we’ve made poutine mainstream. We have customers coming to us at different times of day. We haven’t even started to reach our potential.”
But he’s trying—Smolkin believes there’s room for 250 more poutineries in Canada and recently opened one in Berkeley, Calif., the first of what he hopes will be 800 locations in the U.S. He also has letters of intent for the U.K. and Australia. What’s more, the ever-expanding empire now includes two offshoots—Smoke’s Burritorie and Smoke’s Weinerie—which will be franchised.
We caught up with Smolkin to find out where the gravy train is taking him next.
How do you explain SUCH fast growth?
A few years ago McDonald’s and A&W in Canada started focusing on poutine and building the whole category. They spent millions of dollars on making it a mainstream food, but we own the category. That led to our high growth rate, besides being an insane brand kicking ass.
How would you describe the smoke’s brand?
We’re all about ’80s Canadiana. Our restaurants and logo have lumberjack plaid, and all our shops play only ’80s hair-band music. When we first started, all of our marketing budget was coming out of my pocket, and we were competing with zero dollars. So we started getting into events and social marketing. For instance, we started Smoke’s World Poutine Eating Championship when we had two stores. Now it’s an event that attracts the top eaters in the world, with 15,000 people coming through. I show up in a DeLorean to host, and we have a KISS cover band. It’s a whole spectacle.
This year we’re doing the 21-city Smoke’s Poutinerie World Famous Great Canadian Cross Country Plaid Gravy Train Fries Curd & Gravy Weird Wild and Wacky Poutine Eating Tour. We have a plaid-wrapped RV that sets up these parties with cook-offs and gravy wrestling. We have contests where we’ll come to your city and host a poutine party for 100 friends, and people can win free poutine for a year. We’re not going to rely on some $10 million ad campaign. We own our events and create our brand.
The branding is great, but is poutine just glorified bar food?
Not the way we do it. We’re taking poutine to the next level. We don’t preach about this much, but we keep it authentic. We actually have our own fields. We grow our own potatoes and hand-cut our fries. We have our own recipe for curd that is produced for us in Quebec, and so are our gravy and sauces. We spend the extra bucks on quality curd. We’re talking the highest quality and keeping it real and true and premium.
Do people in the U.S. know what poutine is?
In the U.S. we’re still Smoke’s, but we have a totally different message. Here we talk about it being an iconic Canadian dish. In the U.S., it’s “loaded fries.” Everyone knows what that is, and everyone is eating some version of that already. If they want to learn more about the history and culture of poutine, they can do that after dinner.