By Samantha Ashenhurst
In December 2017, after 57 years of operations in Western Canada, Mr. Mikes SteakhouseCasual opened its first location in Ontario. The Welland, Ont., restaurant is the 37th franchise in the country.
“We are ambitious,” says Rick Villalpando, senior vice-president (SVP) of business development for RAMMP Hospitality Brands, Mr. Mikes’ franchisor. “We want to have restaurants coast-to-coast. We’ve always had plans to move into Ontario and across into Eastern Canada, encouraged by the rapid success and development we’ve had in Western Canada.”
Since acquiring the Mr. Mikes’ system in 2011, RAMMP has sold 60 franchises. Six are scheduled to open by the end of 2018, including another Ontario location in St. Catharines, one in Vernon, B.C., three Alberta franchises in Calgary, High River and Fort McMurray and one in Winnipeg.
“We’re thinking as the brand grows, we could expand into Northern Manitoba and Ontario, such as Kenora,” Villalpando says.
The franchise whisperer
With 25 years in the restaurant franchising business, Villalpando is no stranger to developing brands across the country. In 1994, he sold the first Quizno’s franchise in Canada. In 1998, he was recruited for the position of director of franchising at Boston Pizza. Villalpando stayed with the company for eight years, selling more than 100 franchises across North America. He moved on in 2005 to White Spot in Vancouver before Prime Restaurants recruited him in 2006 as vice-president (VP) of national development for East Side Mario’s. Villalpando’s success across all of these brands earned him the nickname ‘the franchise whisperer.’
It was at Boston Pizza where he met the colleagues who would later develop RAMMP, an acronym of its founders’ names, including Mike Cordoba, CEO at Boston Pizza, Al Cave, executive vice-president (EVP), and Robin Chakrabarti, chief financial officer (CFO). The three formed RAMMP in 2010, with Villalpando as one of their first hires.
“It was fortuitous,” Villalpando says. “I was looking to make a change and they were just getting started. We leaped at the prospect of working together.”
An unpretentious steakhouse
Developed by brothers Bob and Nick Constabaris, Mr. Mikes Steakhouse & Bar had become a staple in Western Canada since the first location opened in Vancouver in 1960. At its conception, the notion of Mr. Mikes was revolutionary.
“In the ‘60s, casual dining restaurants had not yet been invented,” explains Villalpando. “If you were looking to get a steak dinner, you were going to a ‘white tablecloth’ steakhouse, where the waiter literally wore a tuxedo. As you can imagine, the average family could not afford to do that very often, if at all. The founders of Mr. Mikes came up with their idea by asking ‘why is it so expensive to go out and have a decent steak?’ They developed the concept of an unpretentious, reasonably priced steakhouse, where you come as you are, go up to the counter and order your steak and baked potato.”
Mr. Mikes’ casual, family-friendly atmosphere developed a following across Western Canada. When other casual dining chains were established, however, Mr. Mikes’ cafeteria-style service became less appealing to customers.
“Just like many brainstorms, the times passed them by,” says Villalpando. “The restaurant didn’t evolve and they kept pushing the same kind of service.”
The chain contracted in the late 1990s. Ownership at the franchisor level changed hands a number of times and the restaurant was eventually rebranded as a casual dining establishment. When the associates at RAMMP learned the Mr. Mikes system was available for acquisition, they saw the potential for success and jumped at the opportunity.