MONTREAL - The Ontario founder of Smoke's Poutinerie is hoping to turn his childhood obsession with Quebec's quintessential fast-food favourite into a mouth-watering, international sensation.
"We didn't invent poutine but we're going to take the Quebec classic to the rest of the world," said Ryan Smolkin, 41, who grew up eating the comfort food in Ottawa and during summer camp in Quebec.
Smoke's Eaterie says it plans to open 1,300 restaurants around the world by 2020 devoted mainly to fans of poutine, the messy but delicious mix of french fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy.
After just six years, 100 franchised Smoke's Poutineries have opened in Canada, mainly in Ontario. Mont Tremblant is the only location in poutine's birthplace after a downtown Montreal restaurant closed in 2013.
Smolkin's goal is to double the Canadian footprint by adding locations mainly in Ontario, Quebec and Western Canada, including 50 by September.
The original strategy was to target young partygoers looking to satisfy their late night cravings. But it also opened in arenas, university and college campuses and amusement facilities like Toronto's Metro Zoo. The company is now hoping to expand in airports in Canada and the United States.
It is also now branching out with new restaurants that would sell gourmet hot dogs and burritos. By fall, 15 new Smoke's Burritories and 10 Smoke's Weineries are expected to open in Canada, joining the first Weinerie in the Halifax community of Dartmouth that opened in December.
Hot dog toppings would include peanut butter, jelly, chipotle pulled pork and garlic chips, while classic burritos would be topped with items like roasted corn, black beans, rice and chorizo sausage.
Global expansion plans are focused mainly on the U.S., where the company hopes to have 800 stores within five years.
The first U.S. location in Berkeley, Calif., opened in December and will soon be joined by restaurants in Hollywood and Las Vegas, the company said.
Smoke's also looks to open 150 restaurants in Western Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
While Quebecers take their poutine very seriously, Smolkin said he hopes to capitalize on its growing popularity, with large restaurant chains like McDonald's serving their own versions.
"Now poutine is so mainstream so I can target much broader targets than just university pockets," he said in an interview.
In the U.S. where there is no connection with the history of poutine, the company appeals to consumers by calling the food "loaded fries."
While Smoke's expansion plans seem ambitious, Smolkin said he has signed multi-unit deals with food retailing operations including Canadian food service company Compass Group.
Still untapped by Smoke's Eateries is the food court market that caters to daytime shoppers and already includes competition from other brands such as Toronto-based New York Fries.
Smolkin said he's been approached by major retailers but has no interest in selling his idea that began about 15 years ago while he operated a brand and design company.
"The gravy train is just pulling out, baby. It's just starting to rock 'n' roll. I have built it from scratch and now is not the time to be bailing out and getting off the train."
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