|In the Works|
|Written by Brianne Binelli|
|Wednesday, 02 May 2012 00:00|
The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro is invading Canadian neighbourhoods as national expansion kicks into overdrive
Peanut butter, strip bacon and fresh banana slices slathered on bread was Elvis Presley’s favourite snack, so why not pile the same ingredients atop a juicy Canadian beef burger, sandwich it between a whole-wheat bun and call it the Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love? That’s what the team at The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro did.
The Burnin’ Love is just a taste of the 70 burger ingredient combinations and six patty choices (beef, chicken, turkey, elk, veggie or Portobello mushroom cap) that pepper this Ottawa-born chain’s menu. The kitchen team also turns out sandwiches, salad, poutine, beer, wine, fruit juices, floats and nearly 40 milkshakes — from chocolate to orange coconut — served in measuring cups. Where possible, the food is sourced in Canada — from potatoes, milk and cheese, to beef from Orillia, Ont., and elk from Kanata, Ont.
But the food is just one part of the equation, decor is another. The factory-inspired setting varies slightly from community to community. In Kingston, Ont., the bistro is decorated with a faux window with bars that offers a view of Lake Ontario, drawn from the sight line of an inmate at the Kingston Penitentiary; in Oakville, Ont., the former 19th-century shipyard space is reflected in a mural of what looks like an old brick wall falling away to a mural of the Oakville Lighthouse. What remains the same at each “shop” is fresh food, inspired service and a community connection.
Ion Aimers, the founder, recognized consumers were hungry for change when he launched the brand in 2001. “I saw people shifting from Chevy Cavaliers to Audis, Sealtest to Häagen-Dazs, and I knew there was suddenly a market for quality,” the entrepreneur told the Ottawa Citizen in 2007. “I thought if I could bring the hamburger experience back to the basics of meat over fire and remind people my age of the way things used to be, I might have a chance.”
Nearly 10 years later, Andy O’Brien, Bruce Miller and Sean Bell, bought into the model. After working together for years, at Mars Canada and Montana’s Cookhouse, O’Brien shared his plan to own a business. So, in the midst of the recession, the trio quit their jobs to realize a dream. “[We] scoured the market — over 200 restaurant concepts — to find one that’s a credible regional gem that we could take across Canada,” recalls Miller, the brand’s VP of Marketing and Construction, of the company that offered more than access to the booming gourmet burger market. “[The Works] was incredibly attractive from so many perspectives, but particularly on the financial side,” says Bell, VP of Finance, Procurement, speaking of the burger bistro’s small footprint and cost-effective build-outs that translate to a competitive top-line.
There was one snag: Aimers. “When I called him up, he was not interested in selling,” says O’Brien, current president and CEO. “Then we had a couple of meetings, and, he realized, while we shared the same values for food and for guest passion, I probably had a different skill set than him and could bring it across Canada.”
The determination has paid off. Average unit volume sales are $1.7 million, representing an average of 200+ burgers sold per day, per unit (among other F&B sales) at sites that range in size from 2,000 to 3,000 sq. ft with an average of 75 to 85 seats. And 2012 marks the beginning of national expansion, with plans to grow from the current 13 stores to approximately 25 by the year’s end and eventually 50 in the next few years.
So far, the new ownership team has added seven shops to the original six, including new restos in Ontario neighbourhoods close to their hearts. The chain has entered London (where Bell grew up), Kingston (where O’Brien has family ties) and Waterloo (where Miller grew up).
Moving forward, additional sites are planned in Ontario, with negotiations in progress across the country — from Edmonton to Calgary and Halifax. And, with more than 400 franchise requests a year, there’s no shortage of interest. “The great thing about our concept is the price point,” explains Bell. “The cost to build [a store] ranges from $530,000 to $690,000, which means the franchisee only requires $300,000 to $350,000 of unencumbered capital. The balance is generally funded through a government backed loan called the CSBFL, Canadian Small Business Financing Loan, which is offered by most, if not all chartered banks.” But it’s not just about the money. O’Brien looks for potential franchisees who have foodservice experience and work, rather than just invest, in their first restaurant. That model fits with the most important deciding factor: brand fit. “If they don’t like classic rock ‘n’ roll music, or they don’t eat burgers, then this is probably not the business for them,” says the CEO, of the shops that only play classic rock.
Kris Hunt and his friend, Ian Roden, were a fit. The London shop owners were so inspired to be part of the brand they moved from Halifax to Roden’s hometown of Ottawa, after graduating from Dalhousie University, to take jobs as dishwashers at The Works. “That was our full-time job,” explains Hunt. “Our goal was to be owners, so we started as dishwashers, then cooks, then we served, then we managed.”
Three years later, the duo reached their potential, opening the first London Works location. “I couldn’t be happier. It’s worked out exactly how I wanted, and it challenges me every day. It’s a product I really love selling,” says Hunt. “Burgers have always been my favourite food. Since I was a kid, it was the only thing I ordered when I went out, so it’s a natural fit for me.”
Hunt certainly isn’t the only one who loves burgers (or the brand). The full-service restaurant equally attracts males and females as well as families, university and college kids, 18-35 year-olds and seniors. It’s why Aimers’ community-based approach was important to keep alive. “Our biggest challenge was to make sure we continued to grow The Works in a true Works fashion, which is neighbourhood by neighbourhood,” recalls Miller. “We are not a chain; we talk about ourselves as being a collection of community bistros.”
The community feel is integral to the brand, with each franchise supporting local charities. “In today’s world where corporate responsibility is often nothing more than a line item or a budgetary item, which isn’t taken very seriously, it’s part of our DNA,” explains Miller of the restaurant’s community-service mandate. In March, for example, the entire team celebrated the brand’s 10th anniversary by giving out free burgers in exchange for customer donations. “There was massive demand and lineups,” said O’Brien of the event that raised more than $19,000 for several charities. For example, The London Shop supported the Alzheimer Society, The Kingston Shop donated to Kingston Special Olympics and Guelph gave to Habitat for Humanity Wellington County.
Aside from the food and community commitment, the service culture within each bistro is also essential. There’s a training program to teach servers about the food and the brand, but, it’s about more than that. “We let them be themselves,” explains O’Brien. “We tell them: ‘Go out of your way to do whatever you think is the right thing to do to make sure your guests are happy.’
The integration of professional systems, such as operating manuals, store-opening teams and new opening processes as well as food specs that can be tracked network-wide have helped bring that collective vision to fruition. And, anyone brought on board the team is encouraged to learn more. “We are very transparent, we are very open,” says O’Brien. “We should all be singing from the same song sheet.” In fact, don’t be surprised if you find O’Brien, Miller and Bell huddled in the new Oakville location having a beer while chowing down on their favourite burgers — a Cracker Jack, Kamikaze and Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love — while grooving to “Jailhouse Rock.”