A hybrid concept
The franchise concept for Browns was a hybrid between an upscale restaurant and a neighbourhood pub. As such, each location would be smaller than a Cactus Club, Earl’s or other similar restaurant.
“With the smaller footprint, I felt we could attract new, young franchisees, because the cost of the investment would be more affordable for them,” says Morison. “I also wanted to build a lifestyle brand to encourage more frequent visits. It would be ‘premium,’ but not ‘super-premium.’ I wanted Browns to be comfortable enough for customers to come back every week.”
At first, however, he was unable to get anybody to believe in the untested brand. It was necessary to prove the business case with three corporate-owned and operated locations in Vancouver. The first two were branded as Browns Restaurant & Bar before the ‘Socialhouse’ name was added from the third location onward.
“They were each around 1,900 to 2,000 square feet,” he says. “Since then, we’ve found our ‘sweet spot’ is closer to 3,000 to 3,500 square feet.”
Another initial challenge for Morison was to shift gears as he moved from a corporate-run restaurant chain to a franchised one.
“My restaurant background is very corporate,” he says. “I had to learn to be much more diplomatic when communicating with potential franchisees. A lot of trust has to exist in that relationship.”
It also meant changes to his skill sets, despite a lifetime career as a restaurateur.
“I had to learn the legal side of the business, especially leasing,” he says. “I have to stay on my game and not let the costs of our buildouts get away from us. Besides that, though, franchising is definitely a superior model for building the business. I’m living a healthier lifestyle than before. I’m more engaged in the business, more in tune with what’s going on and enjoying it more.”
Sure enough, with its lower startup costs than larger restaurants, Browns was able to grow in the face of major, well-established competition.
“We’re now opening in smaller markets where the non-franchises and the bigger franchises wouldn’t bother, like Grande Prairie, Alta., and Dawson Creek, B.C.,” Morison says. “I enjoy getting to travel to these places.”
Like Cactus Club before it, Browns has primarily expanded within Western Canada—its corporate training centre and test kitchen are in Langley, B.C.—but Morison has his sights set on more distant horizons. In August, the company hired Dale Colbran as director of business development for Eastern Canada, with the region’s first Browns location set to open in mid-October in the Erin Mills neighbourhood of Mississauga, Ont. Colbran has previously worked with The Keg, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s and Fuddruckers.
Overall, at press time, there were 31 locations already open, 15 more under construction and 76 deals covering the next five to six years.
“That level of growth is unprecedented in this industry,” says Morison. “I would say 500 locations could be realistic across Canada. Look at Boston Pizza; they have 100 in Alberta alone.”
While franchising is allowing Browns to grow quickly, the franchisor is committed to it for the long run, arranging 30-year leases. For franchisees, this means an initial 20-year franchise agreement with a 10-year renewal.