The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
Ever since he was a kid, Calgary chef Cam Dobranski, 37, has had two goals in life. “I always wanted to run an international business,” he said, “and to own a restaurant.
“I always wanted to be my own boss,” said Mr. Dobranski, who has already succeeded in the second aim – actually running two restaurants, Brasserie and Winebar Kensington – and is homing in on the first one, as well.
Together with partner Andrew Dallman, he founded Medium Rare Chef, an online retailer of unique chef’s apparel, in 2008, hitting on the idea after asking his then-girlfriend’s mother to sew him some chef’s coats.
Eschewing the traditional, clinical-looking kitchen whites, he went for “quirky,” he said. “People would say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool. Can you make me one?’”
Based essentially on word of mouth, orders snowballed as restaurateurs and kitchen staffers saw their work ethos and tastes reflected in Medium Rare’s garments. “It’s about image,” said Mr. Dobranski. “I’m not going after the Thomas Kellers,” he added, referring to the famous French Laundry chef. “I’m going after the guys who are ground level, who are working their asses off, and who will be somebody, some day.”
One place to promote the company’s products, suggests Ed Roach, of The Branding Experts in Leamington, Ont., is culinary schools. “A lot of the community colleges all across Canada have courses. They should be going into those schools and getting them before they hit the road,” he said.
Mr. Dobranski and Mr. Dallman have by now been joined by a team that includes business development partner Jamie Hutton in Vancouver, and a designer based in Montreal, where all their clothing is manufactured.
With orders coming in from across Canada, as well as Germany, Australia and New York, sales have tripled in the past year. “People google us, looking for chef’s clothes,” he said. “There’s nothing in the market that’s like what we’re doing. I think, in the next 12 months, it’s going to triple again.”
Licensing agreements with larger work-wear providers can generate the kind of cash they need to help them expand, said George Minakakis, chief executive officer of the Toronto-area consulting firm Inception Retail Group. “But hang on to control, inventory and branding, because otherwise you could lose sight of it,” he added. “Keep the creativity and the values of the brand.”
Mr. Dobranski says that keeping the brand focus on youth, the company is also starting to attract a wider audience of consumers. “We’re trying to develop stuff that you can wear like a lifestyle, inside and outside the kitchen.”
Moving into a physical retail space is an option for the company. “Going to some of those boutique retailers that could be aligned with what the brand stands for, and getting consignment space,” said Mr. Minakakis, would allow the company to see how well their products do on a retail level, without a big investment.
“It will cost to build some inventory to get it out there,” he pointed out, “but it will give [them] some sense of how to merchandise and market it in a retail environment.”
Kelly Askew, managing director of retail for Accenture Strategy, also thinks entry into a “high-end” chain of cookware stores is a good place to go. In Canada, 74 per cent of shoppers start with Web research but prefer to actually buy in person, he said. “Is there a way to partner with them and almost have a shop-in-shop of chef’s wear that would appeal to home consumers who have disposable income and a passion for cooking?” he suggested.
Choosing well is important, he added, “because, when they have a partner, they lose partial control of the experience the customer has. They need to pick a partner who is going to be able to deliver the brand experience that Medium Rare wants.”
His focus now, Mr. Dobranski said, is managing growth, turning his small business into a global brand, at the same time keeping it “young and cool” – and proudly Canadian.
Throughout that process, however, say the retail experts, it is crucial that the company not veer from its brand’s authenticity. The uniqueness of the garments and their production in Canada, said Branding Experts’s Mr. Roach, should be front and centre on their website. “I’m guessing they have some great values, but they have to determine what those values are, and stick with them,” he said.
“They want to target people who want to be somebody in the future? That’s great positioning,” said Inception’s Mr. Minakakis, “so I would take that and leverage it. If they want to get out of the industry-only segment, they’re going to have to take that message, and extrapolate it on their website and in social media.”
While it is tough to build a brand without a lot of money, he added, “I would narrow down the number of products they are trying to expand on. I don’t think you can afford to enter the apparel industry with everything at one time.”
Managing the difference between their traditional consumer base and a new one made up of non-professionals can be done in two ways, said Accenture Strategy’s Mr. Askew. They can remain purist, or develop “flanker brands,” which are less expensive and more accessible to young buyers. However, he added, “You want all of your products to represent the sense, or the experience, of being a chef, without necessarily being a chef.”