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Report On Business Magazine The latest from Vancouver’s prolific restaurant lab: Browns Socialhouse

At the Browns Socialhouse in North Vancouver's Lynn Valley neighbourhood, the time-honoured restaurant layout has been rethought, if not reversed. To get to the front door, patrons first thread their way through a sprawling deck. Then, inside the door, the path to tables and booths is blocked by a big, centre-stage bar—while just a few steps left of the entry looms the kitchen, where cooks, bussers and even dishwashers are busy doing their thing. "It's this mosh pit," says Scott Morison, founder and principal owner of the Browns chain. "We've made everyone a host."

Design is not the only aspect of the restaurant business that Morison is shaking up. Only a decade old, his Browns Socialhouse chain already numbers almost 40 locations, a total slated to hit 50 this year (a handful under a different name) and 100 within four years, as Browns expands from its western base into Ontario and beyond. Morison considers himself in the race to become the first Canadian full-service chain to hit a billion dollars in sales.

To do that he'll need to open something approaching the 500 Browns outlets he thinks Canada has room for, and he'll have to blow by competitors that include Earls and Cactus Club, which are also based in Vancouver and ply a similar upmarket trade, where burgers and steaks meet rice bowls and salads, and everything is washed down with plenty of better-quality beer, wine and cocktails. Within the category, known as premium casual, the elaborate restaurants double as happening bars, with up to 50% of revenues coming from liquor sales. The format evolved on Canada's West Coast, where liquor laws created an opening by crippling the development of a bar scene. But it is now spreading across the continent.

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Beating rivals like Earls and Cactus Club would be especially sweet, as Morison got his start at one of the early Earls locations and then co-founded Cactus Club, back in 1988. In fact, he used the proceeds from the sale of his 25% share to open the first Browns. The split happened after no one else would buy into his vision for a new chain along Cactus Club lines but with smaller footprints and operated by franchisees, rather than corporate-owned. "Something sexy and well-run, with good systems, but also affordable to get into as a business proposition," he says.

Morison thinks that mistakes along the way have been few, but allows that outlets definitely had to grow larger. Only 1,900 square feet, the first location couldn't get to critical mass. Subsequent ones have expanded to 3,000 square feet or more. A Browns location currently requires an investment of about $2 million to open—more than double that of a Boston Pizza, also based in the Vancouver area and Canada's largest full-service franchise, but only one-quarter as much as a corporate-owned Cactus Club.

With franchisees supplying the capital and doing most of the work, Browns has been able to grow quickly. B.C.'s Lower Mainland boasts 17 locations, and there's room for similar numbers in a Calgary or Edmonton, says Morison. At the same time, a team that he calls the space whisperers can also tailor locations suitable for smaller centres. "We're in Dawson Creek, Grande Prairie, Yorkton," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm singing a Stompin' Tom Connors song." The same five dishes are the most popular menu items chainwide, one of them being the signature dynamite roll, a sushi-joint staple except served with a salad.

Restaurant consultant Alex Fraser of The Fifteen Group likes the sexy but nevertheless "hometown" niche that Browns has carved out, half a notch below Earls and Cactus Club and in competition with chains like Moxie's and Milestones, "but a little different from them." Moxie's, owned by the Gaglardi family, and Milestones, now owned by Ontario-based Cara Operations, are two more chains that were cultured in Vancouver's fecund restaurant laboratory.

Morison rejects the idea that any competitors are direct. "A couple of years ago we sat down and realized that we had to create our own competition," he says. Accordingly, several other concepts are in the works, the idea being to allow franchisees to open up across the street from themselves. There's a pizza concept and a Morison's Steak House, the first of which will open later this year. The most important rollout, though, is likely to be London Bull, a slightly younger and pubbier version of Browns that will debut in the Vancouver suburb of Langley in the fall. Whereas Browns tend to go into new-builds or "clean spaces," as Morison calls them, the London Bull design can fit into the "dirty spaces" formerly occupied by other restaurants. That first London Bull will take over from an East Side Mario's (another Cara franchise) that had the misfortune to be close to a Browns.

Of course, concepts owned by companies like Cara and Burlington, Ontario-based SIR Corp. (Jack Astor's, Canyon Creek) are shifting toward Brown's multicultural, adult-oriented style to compete. But Morison wonders how successful they will be, suggesting that the true advantage of the Vancouver chains is that they're owned and managed by restaurateurs. "Back east they're run by public companies—how do you manage a restaurant as a democracy?" he asks. "We know people are shaking in their boots."

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