Smoke’s expansion strategy: Wieners and beans

Company poised for global growth. Proof is in the poutine, says founder Ryan Smolkin

Chris Powell June 17, 2015

smokes 4The French fries and gravy train just keeps chugging along for Smoke’s Eaterie founder and “chief entertainment officer” Ryan Smolkin, picking up new believers – and investors – at every stop.

The six-year-old company recently announced a new Global Domination strategy calling for 1,300 Smoke’s Poutinerie locations around the world by 2020 (it plans to add 50 new locations in Canada alone before September) as well as two new brand extensions: Smoke’s Burritorie and Smoke’s Weinerie.

Smolkin, the charismatic former marketing executive turned poutine purveyor, says he has been contemplating extending the six-year-old Smoke’s brand into other foodstuffs for several years. Lately though, things have begun moving faster than a 3 a.m. burrito through a drunken college student.

“It’s just come up faster because of the power of the brand,” he told Marketing. “Everybody knows Smoke’s Poutinerie, so it just seems like a natural extension.”

Nobody, it seems, is able to resist the combination of fried potatoes, gravy and squeaky cheese curd. In December, when Smoke’s opened its first U.S. location in the longtime hippie enclave of Berkeley, Ca. – where Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant Chez Panisse helped launch the organic and local food movements back in the early 1970s – more than 1,300 people lined up to sample the distinctly Canadian foodstuff.

“That’s supposed to be the [epicentre] of the whole health scene, and people were lined up around the corner” says Smolkin, obviously taking pride in poutine’s ability to compete with gourmet cuisine.

This year will see Smoke’s open its second U.S. location in Las Vegas, situated in the new Pawn Plaza being built by Rick Harrison – who owns the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop featured in the History Channel series Pawn Stars.

Obviously there’s still work to be done on educating Americans about the intricacies of poutine, however; a recent article in the Las Vegas Sun by none other than Robin Leach described the company as Smoke’s Coutinerie.

Over the next 18 months, a planned international expansion will see Smoke’s targeting cities in Western Europe, Australia and the Middle East. “I’m not only putting my money where my mouth is, I’m gonna go balls-out here, brother: multi-brand extensions, multiplatform,” says Smolkin.

Smolkin, 41, has a tendency to abruptly veer from calculated businessman to an excitable TV-like poutine preacher when talking about the Smoke’s brand. This transition occurs as he begins talking about moving up a planned 2016 launch of Smoke’s Burritorie to this year.

“Are we going to bump it up from 2016? Can you handle it?” he says, voice rising in excitement. “Are you ready to get on the burrito rocket? Holy crap baby, hold it down.”

smokes 1The first Smoke’s Burritorie locations are set to open in Toronto in August, with 15 planned for universities and sports arenas – as well as some traditional standalone outlets – by September.

“[Smoke’s Burritorie] was actually planned for 2016, I’ll admit it,” says Smolkin. “But we stepped it up because we had an awesome opportunity with a few locations that were ideal and the sports and entertainment channel were all over right away.”

Smolkin has already pre-sold 15 Smoke’s Burritorie locations to franchisees before even formally announcing the brand. Smoke’s Burritorie will launch with five signature burritos, as well as offering customers the ability to customize their order. The company has already created a proprietary rice filling, “Kick-ass rice.”

There’s also a focus on the Smoke’s Wienerie brand, which had its official launch in Dartmouth, NS earlier this year and has new stores planned for Toronto and Oshawa later this summer.

Like Smoke’s, the Wienerie brand is aimed squarely at the younger, late-night crowd, with suggestive in-store signage playing off the wonderfully double-entendre friendly word wiener. “We’re playing off the word wiener to the max,” said Smolkin. “[We say things like] It’s a 12-inch, but it’s not just about length, it’s about girth.”

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Smoke’s has launched what Smolkin describes as a sports and entertainment division dedicated to bolstering its presence in “non-traditional” channels such as university campuses and sports facilities, which currently include venues such as the Air Canada Centre and The Canadian Tire Centre.

Smolkin tells about opening a Smoke’s location at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre that ultimately became the facility’s leading food vendor. This led to a second location that helped Smoke’s become both the arena’s No. 1 and No. 2 food vendor.

“I’m not talking about spaces going up 10%, 15% in sales – I’m talking like 300%, 400% from the previous spots,” says Smolkin, noting that the company is adding both a Smoke’s Weinerie and a Smoke’s Burritorie in the Ottawa Senators’ home rink this year.

Another key player in the ongoing Smoke’s expansion strategy is its partnerships with third-party food and beverage companies like Aramark and Compass Group Canada, which are enabling the company to expand into these non-traditional areas.

The company has also begun working with HMSHost, a highway and airport food-service company that has contracts in place with more than 100 airports throughout the world, including Toronto Pearson, L.A.’s LAX and New York’s JFK.

According to Smolkin, that partnership has the potential to break Smoke’s in a big way in the highly lucrative U.S. market. “They’ll do 20 or 30 stores just to test the market,” he says. “If we’re doing 50-60 stores in one summer here in Canada, imagine the exponential growth in the U.S.

“I’ll admit it, those numbers make me a little bit nervous, but I wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t – that’s the excitement about building the business and the brand,” he says. “But, it’s so doable if you’ve got the right mindset and vision.”

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As with the original Smoke’s, Smolkin plans to eschew traditional marketing for both Smoke’s Burritorie and Smoke’s Wienerie, opting for word-of-mouth and the appeal of the shadowy figure behind the whole enterprise, Smoke himself.

“He’s graciously given me 100% equity, but I slip him an envelope of cash once in a while for all of his ideas and giving me the direction,” says Smolkin, who insists that Smoke is real and not some kind of brilliantly conceived brand icon whose likeness is plastered all over the cities in which Smoke’s operates. “I still follow his lead.”

Along with the requisite social media activity, Smoke’s has also created awareness through events such as the World Poutine Eating Championships – the 5th iteration of which attracted 15,000 people to Toronto’s Yonge Dundas Square to watch a KISS cover band and see professional eaters gorge on poutine. The winner, Matt “Megatoad Stonie” slurped up 14.75 pounds of the stuff in just 10 minutes.

The company also recently announced a second iteration of “The Smoke’s Poutinerie world famous great Canadian cross-country gravy plaid train fries curd & gravy weird wild and wacky poutine-eating tour 2015,” a 21-city tour travelling from east to west featuring a plaid-wrapped trailer and free samples.

Smolkin acknowledges Smoke’s doesn’t have the budget to compete with the fast-food giants in the marketing space, but appears to relish the role of being a small fry in the massive food industry.

“We’re going to be the pesky little brother bugging the big guys,” he says. “It’s definitely got to be the non-traditional channels that we’re communicating in.”

Smoke’s is Smolkin’s third start-up, following a student housing business and the design and branding firm AmoebaCorp, which he sold to John St. in 2007. The serial entrepreneur says he has no plans to start a fourth.

“This is it. If I can combine business and food, my two biggest loves, game over,” he says. “I ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.” Except, that is, California. And Nevada. And Western Canada. And…