St. Louis Bar and Grill
Since its inception in 2002 the St. Louis Bar and Grill franchise has become one of the most recognized brand names in the fast-casual dining realm while continuing to uphold its impeccably high standards of quality service and excellent delivery of chicken wings, ribs and many other delicious items on its menu, all the while maintaining competitive pricing. Yes, it’s been a ‘Devilishly Good’ experience for the past 15 years.
Sudbury, Ontario native Brent Poulton founded the company and is proud to have kept the St. Louis Bar & Grill chain 100% Canadian owned and operated. Poulton, who is the CEO of St. Louis Franchise Limited and its singular shareholder, works alongside President Steve Drexler in executing the corporate direction. The two men had previously worked together in the banking industry and share many of the same business ideas and philosophies. In addition to Poulton and Drexler, Brent’s brother Barry Poulton and Bruce Stephens were part of a quartet that helped launch the franchising business and all remain with the company to this day serving in executive capacities.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Steve Drexler and Lisa Roscoe, VP Development and General Counsel, about the tremendous success at St. Louis Bar & Grill and future franchising plans. From the very beginning there were numerous customers who wanted to become franchisees, many of whom held the same vision and dream of Poulton and Drexler.
“The differentiation point for us was that we had a lot of proprietary products and a real level of recidivism and loyalty to our brand even that at the beginning. We’ve opened into new markets and have expanded now to 52 stores with another 10 to come,” says Drexler.
The corporate approach at St. Louis Franchise Limited has been to take small steps in developing the overall growth of the business as a means of staying true to core values, which includes treating customers with respect, not overcharging for meals, always having the value component of what is being offered to customers and ensuring the entire process is handled in a friendly, fast, casual manner.
St. Louis Bar & Grill engaged in an entirely new branding process in 2015 with a new look that is more closely aligned to sports, including bigger television packages and spacious, nicely decorated patios, which creates a tremendous ambiance for customers.
Fast food, pubs and fine dining often tend to have marquee item or several items on their menu. St. Louis Bar and Grill is popularly known for its wide array of secret-recipe wings, succulent ribs and delicious proprietary sauces.
“We sell more than two million pounds of wings annually,” reveals Drexler. “We’ve added more options in terms of the saucing and just launched for the first time in our history a dusted wing. Our consumers asked for it. We always want to be reactive to what the consumers are asking for on the menu. We believe that every menu item should be tasty and delicious and a good value – those are our core principles.”
A significant addition to the St. Louis Franchise that has just recently been rolled out is the ability for customers to use online ordering. It is all part of a continued commitment to ensuring that customers are able to order their food in the easiest, most desirable manner.
“We’re very happy with the rollout and will be doing some major marketing in support of it. In the near future we’re hoping to roll delivery into that as well,” adds Roscoe.
The company’s head office in Toronto always ensures there is a high level of training and support for the franchisees, as well as many proprietary products, which is something Drexler further emphasizes is what separates St. Louis Bar & Grill from most other franchises in the fast-casual space. Poulton and Drexler have always been mindful of the importance of constantly reinvesting in the brand.
“We’ve always believed in supporting our franchisees and want existing franchisees to have the opportunity to buy second stores. It makes it much easier for us to deal with known commodities,” says Drexler.
Many franchisees with St. Louis Bar & Grill became part of the success because they are people with a deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit who wanted to have their own business, and quickly recognized that the franchising route was optimal for them because it provides a playbook on how to do it successfully.
Within the St. Louis franchise, each franchisee has the autonomy and freedom to make their own mark within their individual community. The executive team strongly encourages its franchisees to get involved in their local communities, and get to know the local businesses and be able to put their own spin on St. Louis through their individual marketing efforts. While everything is consistent across the chain in terms of food, service and atmosphere, each franchise owner is given the flexibility to put their own personal mark on it, and that is a key element to the overall success.
“We have a core menu that is very strong but we don’t try and be all things to all people. That allows our franchisees to focus on every dish going out perfectly rather than trying to do 300 different menu items in a mediocre fashion,” notes Roscoe.
In an effort to attract the best people, Drexler and Roscoe say the company is always seeking individuals who have passion for their work and of course a passion for the St. Louis brand. Thanks to the success of the company over the first 15 years, they’ve had great individuals to select from.
“In many cases a lot of our franchisees have come to us from being a customer and loving the concept,” says Drexler.
It is not a requirement or expectation that potential franchisees have been career restauranteurs. In fact, many current franchisees came from other backgrounds and had a burning passion and entrepreneurial desire to want to become part of a successful chain. A friendly, informative outgoing personality also goes a long way in managing and inspiring a workforce that is typically younger in nature.
“Part of the key to success is motivating all of our great employees, who on average are anywhere from 19 to 25 years old. We do believe in having a sense of humour and don’t take ourselves as serious as others,” explains Drexler.
An integral part of the culture at St. Louis to have every franchisee feel they have a meaningful voice in the process and be a part of the further development of the company. It is for that reason, a number of years ago, that Brent Poulton met with the then-existing franchisees and asked them to formulate an advisory council. Today, that council is made up of a cross-section of franchisees from different regions. The council gathers on a quarterly basis to come up with recommendations to enhance the brand.
St. Louis Franchise provides comprehensive training through all facets of the restaurant’s operation including everything from recruitment, hiring and training for all new openings and is executive in conjunction with the individual franchisees.
“That all happens pre-opening,” adds Roscoe. “Our training team is then onsite with them for three to four weeks to help with any questions and troubleshoot because we do tend to have large crowds on opening day, so we’re with them every step of the way.”
While the brand image is thoroughly maintained across the entire network of restaurants and fundamentals are the same, nothing is cookie-cutter about St. Louis – every site is different with its own unique identity and characteristics.
Drexler and Roscoe say the executive team is collectively very pleased with the model that has brought the kind of success it has to date and there is absolutely nothing in the foreseeable future to indicate that will change, including having no plans on taking the company public.
“We want to stay focused on what we do and we don’t want to be distracted by all of the time and effort to look at other options,” explains Drexler.
A number of fast-casual dining franchisees have witnessed an overall decline in revenue in recent years but St. Louis has bucked the trend and continues its ascent as a dominant player in the foodservice industry including an impressive food to beverage ratio of 56:44.
“We’ve always been a value-based brand. Service is obviously incredibly important and we have a program called Guest First to ensure our staff ensures all customers are happy,” says Roscoe.
As evidence of St. Louis’s willingness to be quirky and fun they’ve just recently signed a deal with the voice and executive producer of the television program Letterkenny, which has aired on both CraveTV and The Comedy Network.
“Jared Keeso, who is the originator of the show, will be doing our next radio spot. We want to bring some fun and sense of humour to what we do,” adds Drexler.
Another extremely important aspect for everyone involved at St. Louis Bar & Grill is to be upstanding corporate citizens within each and every community they serve.
“One of our longstanding employees has a child with autism. We took that on as our corporate charity and we’ve raised more than $1 million over the past few years,” says Drexler. A big event is held each October. This past year Corey Joseph of the Toronto Raptors was one of the headlining guests.
The impressive growth pattern at St. Louis Bar & Grill continues on an upward trend. It’s evident the sky is the limit in terms of future growth but Roscoe says she’d love to see a total of 75 stores up and running within the next few years as well as an expansion to a few more provinces, if not all of them. “In addition to having new franchisees we’d also like to see our current franchisees become multiple-store owners. This year we have three franchisees doing a second store,” she says.
“We are fielding a lot of inquiries from the U.S. but are not doing anything with it this year,” adds Drexler. “There is still a lot to do in Canada first. There has been requests to take this internationally both in Asia and the U.S. We’re not ready for that yet but by 2020 we might be, or at least have a plan for it by then.”