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The Fuller Family (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Ma)
The Fuller Family (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Ma)

Culinary rivalry

Fuller family's restaurants heading east Add to ...

In the heart of downtown Vancouver, there is a nine-block battleground of Caesar salads and ciabatta sandwiches. It is, quite possibly, the most competitive restaurant market in Canada.

Stan Fuller runs two Earls restaurants in this "Burrard Corridor," so named for the area's major thoroughfare. Both are successful, riding on the Earls formula of upscale-casual dining, lively bar action and some of the shortest skirts in the waitress trade.

But in this culinary combat zone, he faces intense rivalry from some familiar sources.

The corridor also contains two Joeys restaurants, run by brother Jeff. There is a Saltlik Steakhouse, operated by brother Stewart. And there are two Cactus Club restaurants, in which the Fuller family owns a 65 per cent stake. It adds up to seven restaurants in nine blocks, where the Vancouver-based Fullers are eating their own lunch.

And that's just the way grizzled patriarch Leroy (Bus) Fuller, 80, likes it. He enjoys seeing his boys duke it out, which toughens them for battles against archrivals, such as Moxie's Classic Grill, another ambitious West Coast chain.

"They'd be just as competitive with each other as they would be with Moxie's - maybe more so," says Mr. Fuller, who has structured Earls Restaurants Ltd. so that each of his sons (including the fourth, Clay) can focus on running his own shop.

The blanketing of the Burrard Corridor reflects the Fullers' domination of the West's top locations - from downtown Fort McMurray, to Calgary's Bankers Hall to Winnipeg's Polo Park shopping centre.

The fraternal fracas over the best sites and most imaginative menus worked handsomely through the energy boom, propelling the largely Western Canadian group to 100 restaurants, annual revenue of $450-million and 13,000 full-time and casual workers each year.

But with recession setting in, the easy money is gone (although Western Canada remains a relative sanctuary). What's more, the fighting Fullers are pushing east, making their first foray into downtown Toronto, where Earls will occupy a location in the financial district by next summer and Joeys is going into the Eaton Centre.

As they plot a central Toronto invasion, the brothers realize they have to temper the creative tension.

"We really want to strategize about how we go into that city. We don't want to be in a Vancouver situation where it's a donnybrook downtown," Stewart Fuller says.

As usual, the Toronto invasion is led by Earls, the family's flagship concept. Why the Earls name? In each Fuller generation, there is someone who can truthfully say, "My name is Earl."

Bus (short for Buster) is actually Leroy Earl. Oldest son Stan is Stanley Earl. Bus's father was Cecil Earl, and his grandfather was John Earl. And one of Stan's four young sons is Marshal Dillon Earl.

The complex family dynamics was showcased recently in Calgary and Edmonton, where Bus and the boys, in rare appearances together, bared their souls at events sponsored by the Alberta Business Family Institute of the University of Alberta.

With this blend of candour and testosterone, it was clear that Stan, 56, and Jeff, 43, are the most competitive with their respective chains, Earls (61 restaurants) and Joeys (19 restaurants).

Stewart, 46, does his own thing with three steakhouses. And the 20-unit Cactus Club chain is managed by a partner, Richard Jaffray.

The fourth brother Clay, 54, used to run bars in California. In fact, the Fullers have a number of western U.S. outlets.

But today Clay serves as intermediary among his three brothers (there are no sisters) and a fishing buddy for his father, who lives much of the year in Arizona.

Asked whether they fight, Stan says, "We argue," and Jeff rolls his eyes as he adds: "Just don't order any red wine."

The family admits that the new economic reality means lower sales - the Earls chain, for example, is off 10 per cent from last year's $250-million in revenue. But the recession has opened up prime locations - in downtown Toronto, for example, where they had been scouting for seven years before Earls nailed down a location in the Sun Life Building at York and King streets.

The challenges have resulted in some very un-Fuller co-ordination. Bus and his sons now meet as a board with family advisers four times a year. The chains have long collaborated on purchasing food, but they are moving to common accounting platforms.

It will be tougher as they start sharing best practice ideas, Stan says. "Your competitive side wants to keep secrets while your collaborative side wants to share successes."

The Fullers have come a long way from the mining camps of the western U.S., where Bus's father made his living.

The clan ended up in Sunburst, Mont., where Bus graduated from high school to work in a refinery. He and his first wife opened a drive-in restaurant, with Bus labouring in a refinery by day and slinging burgers by night.

A brother-in-law had bought one of the new A&W fast-food franchises. Bus liked the concept and when one became available in Edmonton, he headed north.

He became Canada's biggest A&W franchisee, the cornerstone of a career that has seen him launch a number of concepts, including Fuller's family restaurants (now gone) and, most successfully, Earls.

In recent years, son Stan has piloted Earls' expansion, and moved it east as far as Mississauga. Now, the Earls concept is returning to Toronto (a Joeys opened recently in suburban Don Mills), its actual birthplace: Bus and Stan started the original Earl's Tin Palace in the singles-heavy Eglinton-Yonge area in the 1980s.

The burger-and-beer joint was a hit, but Bus had earlier folded his operations into a public company, Controlled Foods.

As he disengaged from Controlled Foods, he was forced to surrender the site to another chain. He went back west, and, working with Stan, reshaped the Earls strategy.

While beers and burgers worked like a charm in Toronto's singles belt, it was too simple, meaning there were bound to be copy cats. So the two men devised more interesting menus and put professional chefs in charge of product development. Earls embraced complexity in formats and concepts as a way to keep ahead of imitators.

The approach has worked, says Doug Fisher, a Toronto restaurant consultant, who sees Earls, with its grand, comfortable dining rooms, as one of the best concepts to come out of Western Canada.

Mr. Fisher says the Earls group can succeed in the East if the brothers are on the ground, rather than trying to do it all by remote control from Vancouver.

Yet that is not the plan, the Fullers say, although they will have experienced company hands running the Toronto show.

And a show it is. Restaurants in the Earls group might each look a tad different - more focus on bars downtown, family-friendly in the suburbs - but the common factor is the attractiveness of the wait staff.

When this is pointed out, the Fullers engage in their trademark banter.

"We have nothing against good-looking women," Bus says with a devilish grin.

Then Stan, the older, more serious brother, pronounces that "we believe we are in the entertainment business and it is part of the show."

 

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