Ryan Smolkin, the founder of Smoke’s Poutinerie, is what you’d call a born entrepreneur. As a student at Wilfrid Laurier University, he ran a successful property development company that he slowly built up and sold for $4-million in 2002. He then started a branding and design company Amoeba Corp., which he eventually sold in 2007. It wasn’t until 2008, after a six month contractual transition clause and the birth of twin boys, that he could finally start up his so-called “dream company,” one that would let him combine two of his most beloved passions: business and food.
Mr. Smolkin says he dreamed up the idea for Smoke’s – the first food joint ever to focus solely on poutine – more than a decade ago. He points to his upbringing in the Ottawa Valley, which borders La Belle Provence, as partially to blame for his love affair with the traditional Quebecois dish.
“I grew up with poutine, and would always mix stuff in myself anyways,” he says. His days as a bachelor living on Kraft Dinner and Hamburger Helper also reinforced his flair for experimentation. Like a mad scientist in the lab, Mr. Smolkin has combined some unlikely ingredients with great success. Some inspired recipes include the scrambled eggs, bacon and real maple syrup poutine as well as the turkey, cranberries and stuffing poutine.
Since the opening of its first store on Adelaide St. in Toronto on November 20, 2008, Smoke’s Poutinerie has seen explosive growth in the past year, with 15 more chains popping up across the country. His goal is to tap out at 20 chains in Canada, and has his targets locked on St. Catharine’s, Waterloo, Calgary, Vancouver and St. John’s Newfoundland. From there, he hopes to go carry the Canadian brand overseas. He says over 1500 requests from around the world – looking to export the franchise.
Besides the lunch and dinner crowds, Smoke's caters to the the university, after-bar crowd that descends around joint 1:30 to 3 a.m.
“That’s when it’s chaos,” says Mr.Smolkin. “We’re doing back-to-back one hundred-plus servings an hour.” Smoke’s once served 165 poutines in an hour, a record. (That’s 2.5 poutines a minute).
Mr. Smolkin credits the social media aspect of his company – specifically his fans on Twitter and Facebook – for helping spread the word around his company.
At the end of May, Smoke’s held a soft launch in Winnipeg on a Tuesday morning. By 10:30 a.m., there was a lineup around the corner, with 800 people dropping by that day. The next day, Smoke was the third most popular trending person/place in Winnipeg, just behind The Forks and TSN. By Saturday, the number of customers to walk through Smoke’s hit 1,200. So in the five-day period they were in business in the ‘PEG, they served over 5,000 customers.
Deft social media skills and clever marketing that plays on 80’s nostalgia have contributed to the poutinerie’s red-hot success.
“It’s all about branding,” says Mr. Smolkin, who underscores the importance of Canadiana in his company’s logo. One only has to look to the overwhelming use of lumberjack plaid in the design, and the glass bottles of Pop Shoppe stocked in the fridge to feel both patriotic and nostalgic.
Then there’s Smoke himself, that enigmatic black and white stamp-of-a-face both familiar and foreign. You’ve probably noticed stickers of him splashed across billboards and flyers across your town. Problem is, inquiring into his identify will only lead to more questions and confusion.
“He’s the man, myth and legend,” Mr. Smolkin reveals. “He’s the sixth astronaut to land on the moon, that anonymous, unidentifiable, silent third party figure now has a cult following.”
The Poutinerie owner seems to bask in the mystery surrounding the fictional character. “A man on the GO-train thought he was Drew Carrey,” Mr. Smolkin laughs. “We’ve also heard someone say he looks like John Travolta. Smoke just has one of those faces.”
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