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The poutine paradox: can Smoke’s take the Canadian staple global?

The poutine paradox

On a recent vacation in the Netherlands, Dr. Jordan LeBel, food marketer and founding member of Concordia University’s Quebec’s Food Culture Research Group, came across a couple poutine shops in Amsterdam.  

It made sense to LeBel, given the city’s young demographic and streets teeming with backpackers and tourists.

“It’s an exportable type of food – cheap to produce and get the operations up and going,” says the associate professor of marketing and director of the executive MBA program at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business.

But Ontario fast food chain Smoke’s Poutinerie’s recently announced plan to grow from 76 restaurants in Canada and five in the United States to 1,300 shops in the U.S., Western Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 may be a bit ambitious says LeBel.

“It’s a lot to open 250 restaurants a year…the human resources systems you’ve got to put in, the manpower you’ve got to recruit, the legal systems you need, operational systems, (finding) buildings,” says LeBel, who’s researched franchises in the U.S. “From everything I’ve read, it seems like they’re just trying to blow up smoke to get hype going and get people to notice their brand.”

Ryan Smolkin, who founded the company in 2008 and continues to helm the “poutinerie” as CEO, recently told The Canadian Press that he plans to expand the brand’s footprint through a series of multi-unit agreements in the U.S. and use the master franchiser approach overseas, selling the rights to develop a geographic area that can then be sub-licensed to other franchisees. Smoke’s didn’t respond to requests for a comment.

While poutine has made it onto the menus of American fast food joints like Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King, convincing franchisees south of the border and overseas of the Canadian dish’s merit is a different story, says LeBel.

“You’re going to have to work very hard to educate them on what this new, weird-sounding and weird-looking foodstuff is,” he says. “And whose pocket is that going to come out of, the franchises? They’re already giving you two per cent on revenues for advertising.”

Plus, many countries already have their own junk food staples.

“In Amsterdam, for example, they eat these thick-cut French fries with mayonnaise,” he says. “If you’re going to go in a country that has established rituals, established consumption patterns, you’re going to hit your head against the wall.”

Canadian brands have struggled to make it work on the world stage with Tim Hortons being a prime example. The cult favourite, recently merged with Burger King to form Restaurant Brands International, first made a play for the U.S. market in 1984 and since has opened up over 800 locations. Last November it shuttered 27 shops in New York State and Maine. 

“Americans just don’t have the same emotional connection to the brand,” Bill Chidley, partner at brand-consulting firm ChangeUp in Dayton, Ohio told The Globe and Mail. “You just can’t wave a magic wand and bring that to this market – you need something more compelling.”

LeBel suspects a similar challenge for Smoke’s pointing out that even the word “poutinerie” is apt to be a challenge.

“It’s one thing to have your concept down and to have it work here where poutine has sort of this mystique,” says the food marketer. “But ‘Poutinerie’ for an American to say that? Come on, I think they’re going to need to adapt if they want to reach 1,000.”