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You’ve Got What It Takes: Crabby Joe’s

How he got here

  • The bulk of Howard’s professional life was spent with Imperial Oil, working primarily in the operations and marketing departments. In his last five years with the business, he was based out of the company’s Toronto head office, working on national campaigns for Imperial’s retail (gas bar) division.
  • In 1995, Howard and his family moved to London, Ont., where he made his first foray into entrepreneurship, opening his own corporate training firm. The company initially focused on training for corporate and government employees in the technology sector. As the training industry began to amalgamate, Howard chose to sell his business to a larger national firm that offered a wider range of training services, including so-called ‘soft skills,’ such as leadership and project management.
  • After the sale, Howard joined the new Toronto-based company as a vice-president, again focusing largely on operations and marketing. Having grown to love their new home, Howard chose to commute, spending four days in a Toronto apartment and the rest of the week with his family back in London. After about five years of this arrangement, he was ready for a change.
  • The Pennells began searching for an opportunity that would allow them to stay in London and still earn a good living. While they did not set out to find a franchise, let alone a restaurant, an ad in the local paper led them to an existing Crabby Joe’s corporate store that was in the process of being franchised. Familiar with the concept and the location, Howard was intrigued.
  • After doing some additional research, Howard was impressed with Crabby Joe’s positioning in the marketplace and thought it was a good fit for the London community. “It’s not the type of place where people are going to go out and spend $150 for dinner, but it’s also far from the lowest end of the spectrum in terms of dining out,” he says. “It is an ‘every day’ restaurant, as opposed to just a ‘special occasion’ restaurant.” After meeting the franchisor and quickly establishing a positive relationship with the head office team, Howard was convinced this was the right opportunity for his family. A few months later, after completing franchisee training, the Pennells officially took over.

124Jeff Young says:
As a franchise consultant working with unemployed executives, one of the biggest frustrations I hear is clients’ inability to cross into other business sectors. The corporate world likes to ‘pigeon hole’ people; as a result, Howard could be considered an ‘oil guy’ working most of his career with Imperial Oil. However, he understood his true skills—operations, marketing and training—and that those skills can be just as effective in vegetable oil as they were in motor oil. Kudos to Howard for being proactive in making a career change before his career changed on him.

The Pennells’ choice to purchase a corporate-run restaurant and operate it as a franchise required a huge commitment of capital and time. Restaurants are often the most challenging businesses to run; however, when you have a properly trained staff, they can operate like a well-oiled machine, a big bonus for someone like Howard, with his background in training. Also, franchise locations typically outperform company-run units, because of the owner factor. Franchisees like the Pennells do a better job in operations because the business is truly theirs, motivating them even more to devote their time and skills to make it a success.

Another important factor in restaurants is the location. By purchasing an existing business, this variable was set, eliminating the risk of opening in a bad spot. Howard could also proceed confidently because of his familiarity with the location and its potential.

Name: Howard Pennell
Crabby Joe’s Tap and Grill
London, Ont.
In business since:
October 2005

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