St. Louis Bar and Grill
Toronto-based St. Louis Bar and Grill—to borrow a Gladwellian term—is at their tipping point. After a fierce devotion to founder Brent Poulton’s concept of creating a neighbourhood Bar and Grill with truly outstanding products, the restaurant enterprise is facing the fact that it cannot supply the demand for its food without expanding.
Full disclosure: the author of this piece lives close to the original St. Louis on 2050 Yonge Street, Toronto, and is a happily devoted fan. “I’m sure you will agree, we do feel like your neighbourhood bar and grill,” says Kathy Hosseini, director of franchise sales for the company. “It’s a local hangout, we fit in well with the community,” she says. Absolutely, I concur.
In 1992, Brent Poulton took his experience gained from working at one of Toronto’s most established wing and rib restaurants, Bistro on Avenue, and focused it on creating “a superior chicken wing and rib product in a casual neighbourhood bar setting at competitive pricing.” And he succeeded. Rather than being an afterthought, the wings at St. Louis live up to the slogan “Devilishly delicious.”
For years, and despite an increasing popularity and demand, Brent fought requests to expand and franchise what he had started. It was important to focus on quality, not quantity. The bar and grill market is saturated with mediocre places, and Poulton knew what he had was special and to be protected. However, Poulton has slowly and cautiously started to branch out due to sheer necessity but has remained quite loyal to his initial vision for his brand.
“We tend to be quite protective of the brand,” says Hosseini. “St. Louis now has 23 locations, and is looking to expand further in the Ontario region.” His vision is still consistent with what he had built in 1992. He is very protective of who we grant franchises to. We are honouring what brought us to the dance, which is our signature product and a consistent delivery of that product.”
St. Louis is a franchise without being a franchise. No cookie-cutter restaurants here, each location is unique and tailored to the neighbourhood. “We respond to the community as we grow,” says Hosseini. “In the concept of brand, you aren’t going to see this replicated identically across every St. Louis. You are going to notice significant variation from store to store in terms of the look and feel. We are quite flexible and we need to be to maintain that neighbourhood bar and grill atmosphere.” For example, in response to a new luxury high-rise completed summer of 2009, the new location underwent a significant patio renovation which included outdoor television screens (that remain outside well into November) patio heaters, an outdoor fireplace, gorgeous new plants and modern furniture.
Hosseini beams, “We have had such a loyal following at every location. Every store has its veterans and the die-hards. And it is integral to the brand and sustainability. We respond to the community as we grow.”
Cost certainty model
Franchising can make or break a company, something the St. Louis team is well aware of. Anyone who is brought into the St. Louis family shares the spirit and passion that Poulton founded the company on. “We look very carefully at every person we partner with, and it is very much a partnership because Brent personalises that partnership; he sees it as an extension of his own initiative when he was young and started a bar, and every franchisee we are looking for that same drive, personality, sense of humour, dynamic, and a passion for this brand.”
In order to find the best partners, St. Louis recently revised the requirements for its franchisees. The company recently dropped the unencumbered cash investment required by perspective partners from $300-$350K to $200-250K as a result of a serious focus on the part of the company throughout 2008 on the investment model. At that time, the real estate boom in Toronto had caused a significant rise in construction, which pushed up the development cost to the point where the investment threshold was so high that those who previously may have qualified for the restaurant no longer did.
“We sat back and realised that not a lot of people have that investment level available, but they have the drive and the passion,” says Hosseini. “By allowing an increase to 350k we were blocking out motivated investors. We put a lot of work into our cost certainty model which means no longer are franchisees susceptible to being quoted one price by a contractor and then be presented with a different bill at the end of the build, for instance.”
As the company is on the threshold of growing, St. Louis now offers a cost-certainty model and a reduced-cost model for those interested in being part of the growing family. Looking out for their investors should garner them the quality team needed to meet the demand.
That St. Louis has a very successful and smart business model has been established. Now onto the goods: their signature dishes! The author is of the opinion that St. Louis could have a draconian business model and might still find success because of its signature dishes. The ribs and wings are special. “It starts with the marinating process. St Louis wing is pre-marinated in 17 spices and is delivered fresh to our stores. That is a point of differentiation instantly. You’ll notice that in the colour profile, the wings are darker—that is the pre-marinating and spicing,” says Hosseini.
St. Louis is also now offering poutine with their dishes as a response to customer demand. “When we respond to the local community, we look for franchisee to garner the feedback of their customers on menu. What comes back to the tunnel to us drives our decision,” says Hosseini.
Beyond that, the sauces are spectacular, from mild to hotter than hell, you’ll find one you love and won’t venture far from it. In fact, that’s the only problem St. Louis is facing these days—persuading their customers to veer from their usual order.