St. Louis Bar and Grill
There is something indelibly Canadian about the St. Louis Bar and Grill, besides sharing the name of the central Saskatchewan village of St. Louis (why, were you thinking the other city?).
It’s reflected in the superior wing and rib product, second-to-none in quality and value, the genuinely friendly staff, diversity of guests, neighbourhood locations and the consistent delivery on a promise to welcome every guest with open arms, deliver incredible food at competitive prices and provide a warm environment for friends and family.
It’s also reflected in the quiet growth of the brand from a single location at 2050 Yonge Street, Toronto, to its current roster of 32 locations and the anticipation of launching a national platform in this, the 20th year of the business. It is St. Louis Bar and Grill’s conservative approach to growth that has enveloped the longevity and will protect the sustainability of the brand.
The St. Louis Bar and Grill brand is an extension of owner Brent Poulton, a gregarious host and keen visionary who has stuck to the core values of his Sudbury, Ont. upbringing: trust, integrity, hard work.
When asked how the brand is responding to competition from larger U.S. chains coming to Canada, “there is a fundamental difference to doing business here and the U.S.,” says Poulton, the consumer culture in Canada prioritizes substance over style. It’s a conservative market that prioritizes quality, value and the fulfillment of customer expectation.
Canadians are drawn to the steak, not the sizzle,” says Poulton.
While St. Louis Bar and Grill may not have invented the chicken wing, “What we did do was Canadian-ize it,” says Poulton. “We took a template commodity and evolved it to the point where it is a proprietary product and we didn’t rely on things you could buy off the shelf or that other people could offer.
“We developed our own recipes and took what was already a popular product and evaluated it to where the Canadian consumer really related to what we were doing and made it our own.”
West and East Coast Expansion
Poulton started out St. Louis Bar and Grill with a strategic and methodical standpoint, looking to other iconic Canadian brands that had successfully developed from small grass roots to national representation. “I started to predicate the strategy of growth on a lot of the patterns they had utilized. Patterns like consistency, sticking to core values and not resting on your laurels.”
Asked if he feels he’s been able to emulate those patterns, Poulton smiles, “Most definitely.”
Due to increasing brand recognition and demand by investors outside of Ontario, 2012 will see the St. Louis Bar and Grill expand outside of Ontario to a national portfolio. The first markets—Calgary and Edmonton in the west, and Moncton and Halifax to the east—are slated to be up and running later this year.
The expansion will see the number of locations double in the next 24 months. Staying true to the core values of the system, this step has not been taken without a great deal—two years’ worth—of exhaustive research and preparation.
“We stopped development for a while and stood back and evaluated our position,” says Poulton. “We wanted to make sure that what we are talking about and what we are focusing on is what [the customer] wants us to focus on. We wanted to understand what [the customer] expects and if what they want to feel hear, taste, touch and see when they come in is actually what we are doing.”
“Because a brand is not what we say it is. It’s what the customer says it is.”
St. Louis embarked on a wide breadth of studies with focus groups, competitive research, and consumer personality profiles at different age groups. The findings were very positive. “The wonderful thing is that there was a direct correlation between the strategies we have been applying and what the guests wanted, and more importantly what they received,” says Poulton.
St. Louis Bar and Grill’s conservative approach to growth means always moving forward strategically—the same conservative ideology of the Canadian banking system which stayed the course during the recent economic banking crisis.
Over 20 years, St. Louis Bar and Grill has developed an economic model that has served the brand and its franchisees well. “What we don’t do is deviate from that for the sake of getting the store open,” says Poulton. “The plan has never ever been growth for growth’s sake.“
Kathy Hosseini is the director of franchise sales for St. Louis Bar and Grill. “That’s [Poulton’s] banking background at work (Poulton has a background in mortgage underwriting),” says Hosseini. “Many fail in franchising due to a lack of understanding or appreciation of the delicate nuances of this business, forgetting that financial bottom line profitability of franchisees is what really drives the successful growth of a franchise brand. In an ever competitive real estate market sometimes reaches are made when it comes to real estate and the result is a franchisee who is demoralized because at the end of the day he isn’t making any money.”
“Our franchise sales team’s focus is on our financial model,” says Hosseini. “We tackle the model like bankers. We look at actual sales we have achieved, not ‘pie in the sky’ projections. We consider what the rent structures are and if the opportunity is not in line with our expectation of franchisee’s bottom line profitability, we will turn it down regardless of what it means to our growth objectives.”
The demand has always been there to expand,” says Hosseini, who has gotten requests for franchisees from all over Canada, and as far away as China and Abu Dhabi. “We turn down more applicants than we accept by a large margin. It’s a constant reminder to not grow the system irresponsibly; to not disservice the franchisee by expanding passed a critical mass.”
Now that the time is right to take the brand to the west and east coast, Hosseini is “very excited” and confident that the franchisee system will thrive in those markets. “St. Louis Bar and Grill prides itself on a very transparent franchisee operation, not a hundred hidden revenue streams,”—business practises that align with Poulton’s Sudbury upbringing.
The corporate franchise team invests a great deal into the individual franchisee owners and develop the franchisee through ongoing training, bi-monthly seminars, even a franchisee advisory council that meets regularly and communicates to head office what challenges are being experienced at the store level. “We have a very mobilized and engaged franchisee group,” says Hosseini, “and an equally engaged and committed team at head office who wants to support our franchisees in every way we can.”
St. Louis Bar and Grill has worked hard to create a franchise system that allows the franchisee to benefit from the competitive advantages of the proven operations model, broad range of products and value and integrity of the brand. “We have talented and capable people and a system that is singularly focused on what we are doing and how we are doing in,” says Poulton. “This resonates strongly with our franchisees.”
The last 10 years has seen the brand grow to 32 stores and 10 stores are under development for 2012. While significant, the reality is the measurement of same store sales from one year to the next is the true barometer of success and profitability, and so it is a sign of the brand’s strength that 2011 saw a 7 per cent increase in same stores sales and an increase in guest counts.
If that were not impressed enough, St. Louis is blowing away the competition in respect to its beer sales, having just moved up to the Top 4 restaurant in Ontario for draught beer volume.
“The viability of having a brand predicated on a product rather than atmosphere or gimmick or trend means longevity for our brand,” says Poulton. St. Louis Bar and Grill is evidence of this.
When asked the key to the brand’s success, Poulton doesn’t point to a telephone-sized manual with the company’s service guidelines. Instead, it is summarized in two words: Guest First. It’s clear and consistent, like the brand’s ethos.