What’s not to love about an upscale Canadian concept with inventive food and beverage? Only that it’s not immigrating at a faster clip. Earls Kitchen + Bar—with 59 locations north of the border—has seven U.S. locations with two more set to open this year, in Boston and Orlando, Florida. The Vancouver-based chain also plans to open one new location in each country next year.
“In the U.S. you either get a high-quality dining experience or a high-quality bar experience, but we offer both,” says Earls’ chief development officer Stephen Andrews. “So even though [the U.S.] feels like a crowded market, our offering is different.”
In fact, Earls itself is different and has turned 180 degrees from the first restaurants the company opened in 1982, when it broke ground as a burger-and-beer operation. Earls now has a made-from-scratch menu that includes items from curry to burgers, sushi, tacos, and rice bowls, plus entrées like chimichurri skirt steak and Cajun chicken.
The U.S. locations are fairly different from the Canadian restaurants, Andrews says, noting that food sales are higher than in Canada, and there’s a weekend culture in the U.S. that doesn’t exist north of the border. Plus, Andrews says, “We are also just starting to see the shift in the U.S. to a preference for higher-quality food over quantity. Canadians appear to have made that shift earlier than their U.S. counterparts.”
The U.S. venues are located throughout the country in Bellevue, Washington; Chicago; Denver; Lone Tree, Colorado; Miami; Somerville, Massachusetts; and Tysons Corner, Virginia. Another difference Andrews notes is that the U.S. locations have a larger footprint, since they’re in bigger cities that are more densely populated and the additional seats are needed to support the required investment in the build and design of the restaurant. They also have a lighter color palette and incorporate natural light to give great daytime energy.
To bring Earls’ culture to the U.S., the company has worked hard on creating teams mixed with employees from both north and south of the border. “Our culture is critical to our DNA and we need enough Canadians to implant that culture in the U.S.,” Andrews explains. “We approach each market with a lot of humility. We are forever students and forever learning about what our customers want. We didn’t airdrop in with a package built for Canada.”
Similar, Not Identical
“One of the things we’ve realized is that restaurant concepts don’t transfer well across the border,” says Mo Jessa, president of Earls. “You have to understand who the customer is and not pretend they’re Canadian.”
In fact, he adds, each U.S. market is different. “We have to bring relevance to each menu [and] use local ingredients, like cobia in Miami.” At each location, 15 to 20 percent of the menu consists of dishes unique to that specific restaurant. Earls also tailors the beverage menus to the city: cocktails in Miami and craft beer in Boston.
In each market it’s gone into, Earls has relied upon the knowledge of locals. “It generally takes 14 to 18 months from the time we sign a lease until that restaurant opens for business,” Andrews says. “And a great deal of research takes place before executing a lease—the management team comes out about six months in advance.”
To delve into each market, Earls sends “ingredient foragers” to different markets about a year before a restaurant opens. “They learn in the marketplace from the suppliers—who are a large source of intelligence on what the popular dishes are and, trend wise, what works and what doesn’t,” Jessa explains.
In some locations, Earls will identify partners ahead of time to get to know the market. In Miami, for example, the chain partnered with local restaurants and invited residents to events “so we could introduce ourselves and build relationships with other restaurateurs,” Jessa notes. In Chicago, Earls held tastings with its top executive team to introduce its name in the local community and meet Chicagoans and media.
Getting to know a city is of prime importance to this concept. “You have to understand the whole context of how a city moves and works, and we take it very seriously,” Jessa says. “Research is a very serious investment.” Learning about the industry involves meeting other chefs, learning about new suppliers, especially small ones, and learning about local ingredients, growing patterns, and seasons.
Earls also places a lot of emphasis on first impressions. “We want people to have the very best experience on the first day,” Jessa says. “You have to fully commit to having your best day on your first day.” Earls is so vested in this philosophy that for its U.S. openings the company flies members of the management team to the new restaurants and keeps them there for six to eight weeks while they train the employees at that new location. “It’s a seven-figure commitment to ensure our new locations open with the Earls’ culture and [that employees have the] skill set on the first day of operation,” Andrews says.