If you're in business and have ever stopped to wonder what your legacy will be, you might want to consider the well-lived life of George Tidball, who died in June at 83. George is not only responsible for founding Keg Restaurants, but he also brought McDonald's Restaurants to Western Canada. In many ways, he's responsible for changing the restaurant industry in Canada like no other person.
At the recent BC Restaurant Hall of Fame awards event in Vancouver, there was a tribute to George for doing just that. Speeches were made by his son Steve and Keg Restaurants Ltd. president David Aisenstat about George's contribution to the restaurant industry. But it really hit home when Warren Erhart, president and CEO of the White Spot Ltd. restaurant chain, asked the 500 people in the audience to stand if they'd ever worked for, or supplied to, The Keg.
More than a third of the audience stood up, including me, Global TV's Jill Krop (who was the event's emcee) and Warren himself. All three of us worked for The Keg; Warren was Jill's and my manager in the early 1980s.
Since the first Keg opened in 1971, I'd guess there are almost 200,000 alumni of the famous steakhouse chain; many of us in our 50s and 60s, who are still thankful for the contribution George made to the Canadian restaurant landscape – and to our own pocketbooks. But it's those who stayed in the restaurant industry who probably owe George the most. There are many stories of George financing the first restaurants of his franchisees, financing other restaurateurs and paving the way for other casual fine dining restaurant concepts such as Earls, Milestones, Joey and Cactus Club Café.
"If you only include The Keg, he brought casual fine dining to Canada. If you include McDonald's, he brought fast food to Western Canada," White Spot owner Peter Toigo told me in early October.
A decade ago, over dinner with George, he told me there was no such thing as a "salad bar" in Canada until he looked at chains in the United States such as Chuck's Steakhouse and Chart House, and gambled that a similar concept would fly in Canada. My own father, whose "white tablecloth" restaurant in Victoria struggled (and then died) in the early '70s, couldn't understand why there were lineups around the block at The Keg, while his restaurant was almost empty. "Price, demographics youth, and the music," George told me.
"George wasn't the sort of guy who normally walked through the front door of his restaurants," Peter and Warren told me. He'd often go into one of his franchised restaurants through the kitchen, stopping along the way to speak to "the guys in the trenches," like the dishwashers, those who did food prep and the broiler bar cooks. I knew this, because when I worked for The Keg, he'd often be in the kitchen talking to the cooking staff, the busboys or the waiters. He had an incredible knack for listening, and for making you think you were the most important person in the room. All the more if you liked horses, a passion of his.
There are now more than 100 Keg Restaurants in Canada and the United States, employing about 9,500 people, and with system sales (including corporate and franchise locations) of about $500-million. For the 12th consecutive year, The Keg has been ranked as one of Canada's 50 best employers (compiled by Aon Hewitt). And with its head office in Richmond, it's a B.C. success story.
When we toasted George at the Hall of Fame awards, 500 people stood up and clinked glasses filled with Grand Marnier in his honour. Why Grand Marnier? Because for a time, The Keg was one of the biggest buyers of Grand Marnier in the entire world.
And that's a hell of a legacy.
Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.