This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That. We’ve asked readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories. Their answers are edited.
Introducing Earl Barish, owner of Salisbury House, based in Winnipeg.
1. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, its goals, how many locations you have and where they are?
This company has been around for a long time. It started in 1931, so it’s been going for 82 years in the city of Winnipeg. It was started by somebody named Ralph Erwin who was a player in the theatre. When he retired he decided to set up a very small business called Salisbury House. He wanted food late at night and (people) couldn’t get it when coming through Winnipeg and putting on plays.
I became involved in Salisbury House as a silent investor in 2001, when a group of us – including (Guess Who lead singer) Burton Cummings – decided to bring the ownership of the company back to Winnipeg. It had gone to Montreal and we decided to bring it back here. In 2006, I became the president and CEO of the company and I have been in charge of the operation and the development of the company since that time.
We currently have 14 restaurant locations. We also have a location at the airport and at the health sciences centre, which is our major hospital. We have seasonal operations at our Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team, at the new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team, and we service two golf courses. We also have a catering department called Red Roof Catering that delivers anywhere in the city.
2. Why did you want to bring the ownership back to Winnipeg?
As you can imagine, it’s a hugely nostalgic kind of company. Burton lived on Lansdowne, in the north end of Winnipeg, and probably half a block away was the Main and Matheson location that still exists, and he would be there regularly. It was a 24-hour location when not very many companies were providing that.
When you went out to a wedding or an evening event, and you could be in a tuxedo and your date or your wife in a gown at 1 in the morning, and you wanted something to eat again, you would always go to Salisbury House. The company has maintained its brand and its profile in the community and as a result it’s very well known. And that’s the reason the group of us felt the ownership should be back here in Manitoba.
3. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to launch this business?
I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life. I owned the Dickie Dee ice cream family business with other members of my family from 1959 until 1992. I actually peddled an ice cream cart when I was 14 and 15 years of age in 1957-58. At that time, when the family bought the ice-cream business, it was eight ice-cream bicycles. We eventually sold it to Good Humor-Breyers (a division of Unilever) in 1992, and by that time we were 1,500 bicycles, scooters, cabinets for the Richard D’s bars, and a product we made in the United States. So we grew the business.
I then sold Pop Rocks around the world to 50 countries. I owned the Winnipeg Cyclone basketball team, which was in a professional league here and in nine other cities in the United States. I was president of the league. So I have a little bit of business history. I’ve been a Winnipegger all my life and I love the city, so when the Salisbury opportunity came forward there was no question this could be part of that.
In 2006, the company needed some additional direction. A couple of the directors were no longer involved that were sort of running the company and I was asked if I would take over, and at that point I was what one might call semi-retired. I was busy with many things, though not actively involved in business. I decided this was a fantastic brand, it has 550 employees, and it would be a new learning experience for an old entrepreneur.
It’s been a marvelous learning experience. I was 63 when I took over, I turned 70 on Aug. 18. I thought I knew everything that an entrepreneur had to know, but I’ve learned many wonderful new things in the past seven years.
4. Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
There are some products we’ve been making for 50 or 60 years, and I guess one of the interesting things about our company is that our hamburger is called a Nip. It’s been called a Nip since 1931, the full 82 years, so when you talk to anyone who lives in Winnipeg or a former Winnipegger that lives in Toronto or anywhere else you just say “I’m going for a Nip” and they know you’re going to Salisbury House.
That has been cultivated over the years. We work out of a central commissary. Nothing goes to any of our restaurants other than what’s made in our own commissary and that our own trucks deliver. We make 13 different types of soups, we make our own buns, our own pancake batter, our own syrup. We’re famous for the Wafer Pie, or flapper pie, we’ve been doing that for 50 years and people just know it. Our Red Velvet Cake is second to none and has been around that long as well.
There’s a variety of things that have become staples and well known and historic here in Winnipeg. People come because of that knowledge and awareness, and as the years have gone by the baby boomers bring their children and grandchildren and we have a continuity of families. … It’s a very broad menu that attracts a wide variety of people to a brand that they’ve known for years. That’s what brings them to the restaurants.
5. What is your role in the company?
My background is sales and marketing, as a graduate of the University of Manitoba in 1963. I focus on the brand and the marketing and the development of the brand, and of our promotions and broadening our menus, and making sure people can make choices, and that we’re in tune with products that are becoming more popular. We have gluten-free toast, for example, and other things people need.
I’ve said many times you would not want me to cook for you. I would not do a good job. And I really marvel at our restaurant managers when there’s 150 people in the restaurant, all wanting their food at the same time, hot, choices of all kinds of meat, do they want the whole-wheat bun or the regular bun, how do they want their toast?
Their ability to handle that process and deliver food people enjoy, and are happy with the value they receive, is a challenge and one I wouldn’t be great at. So I stick to the areas I’m strong in, and I have vice-presidents of operations and general managers and other people who know how to deliver the other end of the operation.
6. You’ve been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?
Certainly the longevity of the chain. The quality of the food. The recognition of the food. We have our own niche of pricing. We’re at a level that’s a little bit lower with our prices than for a similar company that would be considered our competitor. I think all of those factors together: history, transfer from generation to generation, the nostalgic items, recipes that are consistent. It’s a reliable company. You can go and you know what you’re going to get, you know that the value will be good and that the quality of the food will be good.