Smoke’s plan for global domination

The poutine chain is expanding into burritos and weiners, and plans to have 1,300 new locations by 2020.

Since 2009, Smoke’s Poutinerie has gone from a single location to 100 across Canada. Over the next five years, the chain plans to have 1,300 new locations, expansion into international markets, as well as extensions into new categories with Smoke’s Weinerie and Smoke’s Burritorie.

By this fall, Smoke’s will have opened at least 30 more Poutinerie locations, 15 Burritorie locations and 10 Weinerie locations across Canada. By 2020, the plan is to have 1,300 new Poutineries opened globally. Of those, 800 will be in the U.S., adding to its first location in Berkeley, California, which opened in December, with spots in Las Vegas and Hollywood planned before the end of the year. Another 150 are planned for the U.K., Australia, Western Europe and the Middle East. Canada will see at least 100 new locations, covering the entire country but focusing on Western Canada.

The first Weinerie was opened in partnership with an existing Poutinerie franchisee in Dartmouth in December, and new locations will open in Oshawa and Toronto this summer. The first Burritorie was originally planned for 2016, but similar opportunities with franchisees presented themselves and gave the company an opportunity to bump those plans up. The first one will open in Toronto this August, with more locations in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Atlantic Canada planned early this fall.

“If I can have 50 [locations] in the queue that we need to have built by September, you can imagine what it’s going to be when we go into the U.S. market,” says Ryan Smolkin (pictured), founder and CEO of Smoke’s Eaterie (as the unified brand will be known), about the goals set for the company. “It sounds like a huge number, but when you see it broken down by year and platform and what we’ve done so far, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.”

Smolkin says a major driver of the expansion is the success Smoke’s has seen with ventures into non-traditional platforms, like stadiums, campuses, amusement parks and airports. Its first location of this kind, at Rico Colosseum in Toronto, is now the number one vendor there, as are locations at BMO Field and Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre. The company has gone from operating eight of these locations last year to more than 60 planned before the end of 2015.

“That’s what has allowed us to explode with the new extensions the way we have,” Smolkin says, adding that the initial plan was to start conservatively with five locations for each of the extensions, but demand and opportunity drove that number up. “We’re not only exploding with Poutineries, because a lot of these stadiums and universities that already have one are looking to add another one, but some are diversifying by adding one of the extensions.”

Working in non-traditional locations also makes expansion faster and easier. While a regular, four-walled street-level location can take as long as eight months to open from the day the deal is signed with a franchisee, Smolkin says once a space becomes open in a stadium or on campus, it can be turned over in a weekend. He says Smoke’s is still invested in expanding its traditional, four-walled locations, but at a rate more in line with its previous growth. He also attributes being able to bring the new weiner and burrito extensions to traditional channels as a result of the demand and growth in non-traditional locations.

In terms of competing in new food markets, Smolkin says hot dogs are a no-brainer at places like stadiums as they fit with consumers’ expectations, while burritos are an untapped market in those venues. In general, the Weineries will be offering a premium product, as many trendy “gourmet” hot dog places do, but emphasize the value by offering large portions with a half-pound, 12″ hot dog. On the burrito side, Smoke’s is trying to bridge the gap between QSR chains like Chipotle with a fast casual experience by emphasizing the quality and signature tastes of its ingredients.

Smoke’s marketing is currently very social and event-focused, and in the short-term, Smolkin says there are no plans to change that. This year’s World Poutine Eating Championships saw 15,000 people visit Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, and the second Smoke’s Poutinerie World Famous Great Canadian Cross Country Plaid Gravy Train Fries Curd & Gravy Weird Wild and Wacky Poutine Eating Tour will visit 25 cities this summer, up from the 17 at the inaugural tour last year.

“Even as we go bigger, we’re trying to stay small,” Smolkin says, adding that the events and tours will be expanded into new markets as the restaurant does. Those events, which tend to be over-the-top, plaid and rock-and-roll-covered affairs, emphasize the Smoke’s brand of being fun and friendly — something it is emphasizing as it goes international, instead of using mass platforms to educate consumers on the history of poutine (as some other chains have done when attempting to invest in a new market).

“It’s just loaded fries,” Smolkin says of the company’s communications strategy in its new markets. “You tell people it’s just loading whatever you can think of on top of fries, and people get it right away because they realize they’re all already eating it. Taking it from that communications angle, and not wasting time on educating people on the whole history of poutine, allows us to focus more on the brand and having fun.”