I’ve never accomplished anything in my life on my own, so everything you read in this article is how other people have made me look good. This article is about the value of ordinary people who are willing to commit to something they believe in and work hard to obtain it. It’s cliché to say, but it’s the people who have made Prime Restaurants a successful franchise organization that provides jobs and careers to more than 10,000 Canadians.
But, let me tell you something, unless you lead your people and provide them with a vision as well as the tools to succeed, no one will work hard for you and no one will believe in your dream. And then all your entrepreneurial goals, all your efforts, will go nowhere.
You can’t be successful all by yourself.
Now if you’ve been in any of our restaurants, and chances are you have because our brands include Casey’s, East Side Mario’s, Pat & Mario’s, Prime Pubs and Bier Markt all across Canada, you’ll know that if the food isn’t good, the service isn’t friendly, and the experience isn’t fun, you won’t be back. So we ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s our job to figure out how to make you happy, and then we do whatever it takes.
I’ve always believed that everyone that walks through our doors is treated as an equal and as our guest. I don’t care who you are; you get the same great service, the same great food and the same good time. Everyone has to eat, so we make sure they enjoy their experience.
Most of you won’t remember a time when there weren’t casual dining restaurants. In the early days, restaurants in Canada were traditional, continental style, Italian, Chinese, fine dining or a variation of a Mom and Pop restaurant. The idea of casual dining or as some called it, “Roadhouse Style”, which combines an open bar area with a themed restaurant area, simply didn’t exist at the time. It was a combination of knowing a good idea when you see one, plus the hard work of a lot of committed people, the right timing and a little luck that led to the opening of the very first Casey’s restaurant in 1979.
As I said, the people are everything, but unless you have a really strong concept that people can latch onto, it’s almost impossible to inspire people to either work hard to grow the business or, what’s crucial in the hospitality business, to walk through your doors and be your guest. People come back to our restaurants because we have strong concepts, good culinary, great people, good training and exceptional marketing. Plus, our franchise owners really get it. They must have the passion for the business and for the guests, and I love working with people like that. Passion is important to me. I’ve always had a passion for the restaurant business. I’ve worked all my life in this business; I was never not in the heat of the action.
I was at a high school reunion last year in Sudbury, and my friend Jim Swain said, “Nick, I remember in Grade 12 we were in a restaurant eating and you said that one day you would own a restaurant.” I’ve always been interested in the hospitality industry. I’ve worked in hotels, resorts and restaurants all over.
The first Casey’s Bar & Grill was located in Sudbury. After years of working for other people, opening and running restaurants, two partners and I decided we wanted to open our own restaurant. We were inspired by restaurant/ bar hybrids we had seen in the Buffalo area; we knew there was nothing like it in Canada.
We developed a theme. Our concept was built around the literary character Casey, from the Casey at Bat poem and Casey the train engineer. The bar side became Casey at Bat Sports and the dining side had a train theme. I even had one of my own train sets in a showcase in the dining room. Now, this location had failed five or six times previously as a restaurant, but when we opened Casey’s it was successful from the start. People just recognized it was a new and great experience.
We came in with a very limited menu, only 16 items, but we served classic Buffalo wings, great burgers, slow cooked ribs and over-sized drinks like Bloody Caesars and Margaritas in giant glassware. Patrons had never seen anything like it before and they really took to it. And the people who worked there – Helga, Russ, Danny, Sylvia – I remember their commitment, I remember they liked coming to work everyday, I remember how they took accountability. They would go to the wall for Casey’s.
At the time, I never dreamed I would be part of running a multimillion dollar, multi-brand organization that would employ thousands. I thought that if the three partners each owned a restaurant, we’d have a good life. Franchising never occurred to us.
But our success led to opening three additional restaurants in 1981; the first in Elliot Lake and then Whitby and Burlington. I would spend months living in hotels working to get the restaurants up and running. It worked and people would come up to me and ask how they could get one of the restaurants for their own. These were other entrepreneurs who knew a good thing when they saw it.
Eventually we worked with a franchising firm out of Toronto to create a franchising program. In 1982, our first franchise location opened in London. Today, Prime Restaurants has 161 restaurants across Canada including: East Side Mario’s, Casey’s, Fionn MacCool’s, D’Arcy McGee’s, Paddy Flaherty’s, Tir nan Óg, Bier Markt and Pat & Mario’s.
But we also had our challenges. We tried to bring the Pat & Mario’s Restaurants to Florida, but we misread the market and lost a lot of money. I had to sell and then buy back the company when I had the opportunity. You need good people in your head office and you need to have franchisees that really get it, who really have a passion and creativity. You also need consistency. You can’t be changing something every day, every week, depending on what the latest consultant says. You need consistency of vision, insight, and a culture.
An entrepreneur also needs to be able to cut the strings they’re attached to. I had to do it myself. Even though I love every aspect of the business, I had to let go and let the people I hired do their jobs. And they do it better than I ever could. I still get to do the things I love, I go to all our menu demos, I’m a foodie and I trained as a chef. I also love working with young people; their energy and their exuberance, it’s exciting for me. I’m a big fan of energy. It’s vitally important to bring energy and excitement to whatever you do, especially if you’re the leader.
Essentially, you have to be able to see the sunlight on a gloomy day.
You know, entrepreneurs don’t just get their kicks from money. They get their kicks from making something happen and experiencing success. I’ve had a great run over the last 30 years. I’ve met so many people and have so many good relationships. I’ve travelled the world and I get to do the things I love. I have a great family and I know I’m lucky. People say, “Nick, what’s your hobby?” and my answer is, “My job”. It’s something I love doing and it has been good to me.
Now I know things are different today than when the first Casey’s and East Side Mario’s stormed the market and people lined up at our doors. There’s so much competition now. The guests have so much choice. The industry is saturated and our guests are more educated, with so many options. Our mature brands, Casey’s and East Side Mario’s, are still strong and relevant because they’ve evolved and our guests love them. Our newer brands like Irish Pubs and Bier Markets are well defined and positioned. They’re unique and attracting great crowds.
Obviously our franchisee owners get it and we get it too. I’m very proud that Prime Restaurants has been named one of the 50 Best Managed Companies in Canada for the eighth time. That makes us a Platinum winner and that’s an accomplishment we’re quite proud of. It means we continually deliver what we promise and we continually strive to improve. It’s consistency of effort and vision.
One of the things I would like to see in the hospitality industry is a stronger voice to represent us. The food service industry employs more than 1.1 million people and 1 in 5 of every youth job is in food services. That’s more than 6.4% of the total employment in Canada. We need to have a more vocal and effective presence to protect our industry and our people. The hospitality industry has been really good to me, and I feel strongly about giving back now and in the future.
It’s that passion thing again. It’s what drives me.