Canadian travellers are increasingly likely to run into the tastes of home when they're out of the country as well-known chains such as Tim Hortons, Freshii and Smoke's Poutinerie have expanded internationally. But it's not just the big chains going global – many small independent players are making the jump, too.
One such player is Kinka Family, which owns restaurant brands such as Kinka Izakaya and Kinton Ramen, and now has locations in Japan and South Korea. For CEO James Hyunsoo Kim, part of the decision to expand was driven by his personal interest in entering those markets.
"It was always the ambition of our CEO to open in Asia because his nationality is Korean and our cuisine is Japanese," said Stella Yu, director of marketing and communications for Toronto-based Kinka Family.
Kinka's Japan location is a hybrid of the group's Kinka Izakaya banner and its Toronto sushi restaurant JaBistro, according to Ms. Yu. The company has tweaked its international branding and menus to stand out in the Asian markets and bring some Canadian-inflected specialties.
"When you're in Japan and you're a Japanese restaurant, you're just a restaurant. So for there we import lobster from Canada, which is something not a lot of Japanese restaurants do," said Ms. Yu.
The iconic Canadian food also features at INK Entertainment's new Weslodge restaurant in Dubai, where diners can indulge in lobster rolls and lobster poutine while taking in the view from the 68th floor of the JW Marriott.
Charles Khabouth and his business partner Hanif Harji run ICONINK, the global arm of the Toronto-based INK Entertainment Group. They set their sights overseas on Weslodge Dubai in 2017 after opening the doors of their Byblos Miami in 2016.
"We were at a point where we had enough financial and manpower capacity to go out of town," said Mr. Khabouth. "You need to be financially strong to have the power to move."
Jeff Dover, vice-president of the food-service consulting group fsStrategy, says that while large chain restaurants such as The Keg might expand abroad because they've outgrown the Canadian or GTA markets, that's an unlikely scenario for smaller operations such as Kinka or INK.
"I don't think either has saturated the domestic market or the GTA market. There is room left and the [international expansions] are just alternative growth," Mr. Dover said.
"A lot of the Arab nations, and especially the Gulf and Qatar, are looking for North American [businesses] and want North American products," said Douglas Fisher, president of the consulting group FHG International.
But Mr. Fisher warns that expanding Toronto-based businesses that far from home can be a risk. "To have one restaurant in Dubai, it would be a headache," he said, noting the long flight it takes to get there. "Better to take your efforts and stay in North America. Be where you can monitor the quality and see what you are doing."
And setting up shop in a new country is not without challenges. For many veterans of Toronto's restaurant market, expanding their brands was like starting from scratch.
Take Janet Zuccarini, owner of restaurants such as Gusto 101 and Café Nervosa, who opened her first U.S. venture, Felix Trattoria, in Los Angeles last spring. Ms. Zuccarini owns five Toronto restaurants and has been part of the city's dining scene for more than 20 years. But when she opened Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles, "it was like starting my first restaurant," she said. She had to factor in everything from new consumer behaviour to U.S. construction permits. "It took a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of patience," she said.
Mr. Khabouth of INK says the Miami expansion came about because he and Mr. Harji were drawn to the city by its vibe. "We have a personal attachment there because it's got great energy and dining."
INK is one of Toronto's most well known entertainment groups, running nightclubs and restaurants, among other ventures, but setting up the contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant Byblos in Miami took a few months, Mr. Khabouth said.
"Nobody knew who we were. Getting small farmers to work with us was challenging," he said. "We had to trim down our menu because we weren't getting the things we wanted."
Construction in new locales also proved a challenge for several Toronto owners. "There are so many rules about construction, different sets of requirements on venting and hooding, working with the local architects," Mr. Harji said.
Juanita Dickson, president of the Gusto 54 restaurant group – which owns Gusto 101 – oversaw the expansion of Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles. She says she and Ms. Zuccarini planned for a 13-week construction period, which ended up being more than double that.
In Los Angeles there are regulations to make venues earthquake-safe, as well as for small things like incandescent lighting. "You can't be out going to buy an old chandelier like I'm used to," says Cosimo Mammoliti, the owner of Terroni who opened his first Los Angeles location in 2007 and his second six years later.
It's these kinds of challenges that make it crucial to have someone on the ground to run the international arm of any restaurant expansion, says Mr. Dover, the restaurant consultant.
"I think it's important to have someone who understands the brand and knows the local market," he said. "You have to know where you're going."
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