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starting out

Neville Lowe and his wife, Beverly Samuel-Lowe, took on a Fionn MacCool’s pub on Front Street West in Toronto after getting restless in retirement.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

March 17 is a good day to own an Irish pub.

You hook up the Guinness, open the doors and reap the profits as a sea of green humanity converges on your watering hole, eager to raise a pint in honour of its often tenuous Emerald Isle ancestry.

If only the other 364 days of the year were as bountiful.

Beverly Samuel-Lowe and her husband Neville Lowe discovered that the hard way five years ago. After taking early retirement, the couple quickly became bored with travelling and started looking for a project they could get involved in together. They did extensive research and decided to accept Prime Restaurants Inc.'s offer to buy into a franchise, taking control of its Toronto-based Fionn MacCool's location on Front Street, right across from the Rogers Centre stadium.

But it didn't exactly go according to plan. Despite his experience owning a bar in his native Jamaica, Mr. Lowe quickly found himself losing money and unable to attract customers beyond the runoff from events at the Rogers Centre, such as baseball and football games and the occasional concert.

The couple needed advice. The question was who to turn to. Would head office be responsive? Could they ask other franchisees, who worked under the same name but might also be nearby enough to be considered competitors?

The pair found a helping hand – and turned around the fortunes of their pub – within the Fionn MacCool's ecosystem. Fellow downtown franchisees Greg Garson, who owns the city's University Avenue location and who has been affiliated with Prime Restaurants for 18 years, and Josh Peace, who runs the Yonge Street and Bloor Street franchises, guided the couple through their challenges.

"In the beginning I used to have problems. … I didn't understand the rules and the guidelines very well," Mr. Lowe says. "We ended up losing a lot, pumping money into it without the knowledge, so Greg really helped us there. And at first we also leaned on Josh for guidance outside the office because they'll give you the honest truth about what goes on, because they're both franchisees like us."

One example Mr. Lowe cites are the guidelines that allow only two TVs in each establishment – so as not to tarnish the authentic Irish flavour. The Lowes added another five sets to cater to a sports-centric customer base. Mr. Lowe was asked to plead his case to head office.

"After a while they understood that though it's an Irish pub, we're in Canada, so we have to provide for the guests that are here and still keep in mind their guidelines for hospitality, and from there we grew."

It's that kind of communication and consideration for individual needs that paves the way to greater success, says Peter Viitre of Sotos LLP, a Toronto firm that specializes in franchise law. "The franchisor should try to be flexible having regard to the market forces in each territory, but without sacrificing its minimum standards. The whole purpose of running a system is to actually run it well in each of those territories and that builds brand value, and that floats all boats."

Mr. Garson says teamwork is a key plank among Fionn MacCool franchisees in downtown Toronto, and even though the owners essentially run separate businesses, the strength of the brand ultimately helps them prosper. Reaching out to a fellow franchisee is a no-brainer, Mr. Garson adds.

"We're not in direct competition but we compare with each other, so we see each others' sales, we see each others' successes and failures and then we help each other," he says.

"It's like when you're on the same baseball team and the guy on first base is having a bit of a hard time and keeps dropping the ball. You say 'Listen mister, you've got to catch the ball or we're going to lose the game,' so you help him get better."

Prime Restaurants – which also owns the East Side Mario's, Casey's and BierMarkt establishments – sets up a franchise advisory committee for each of its brands. Franchisees meet four times a year to put their heads together, air grievances and help each other get ahead, sometimes coming together as one voice before approaching head office about a particular subject.

"In every single industry, in every franchise system, you have a certain percentage of franchisees who follow the system, do very well, and you always have a group of franchisees that for whatever reason face different challenges," says Peter Natyshak, Prime Restaurants' vice-president of franchise sales and real estate development.

"We work with those franchisees to try to minimize losses, protect their investment, and we do the best we can to make sure they're as successful as possible."

While there is collaboration within the Fionn MacCool's franchise system, there are limits.

"We don't swap staff, it's sort of taboo to do that," Mr. Garson says. "But you call and you say, 'Hey, have you had a whole rush of (résumés from) hosts come in, or a whole rush of prep guys or line guys?' So we'll help each other in that regard almost on every single level – we borrow food back and forth all the time."

Entering a Fionn MacCool's location was designed to feel like stepping into an old Irish ale house – the kind of "bars that Keats wrote in," according to Mr. Garson – but the sense of community between the franchisees may be the most authentically Irish thing of all.

"It's like helping out your neighbour. If you don't have, I will give it, and when you get it you can return it," Ms. Samuel-Lowe says. "In that way it's like a family. You don't forget what that person did for you, and when they come to ask for help you'll be there if you can."