The Evolution of Earls Restaurants

June 10, 2013

The Earls North Vancouver test kitchen is buzzing. Timers ring. Oven doors slam. Restaurant servers working their regular lunch shift jump aside as a stampede of visiting chefs barrels down the narrow dish pass, banging in and out of the walk-in freezer.

It's Tweak Week in December for Earls Restaurants Ltd., the Vancouver-based, family-owned company that operates 65 premium-casual restaurants in Canada and the United States. Thrice annually, the chain's far-flung operational leaders and regional chefs are summoned home to test, finesse, and ultimately decide which new dishes from the culinary product development department (aka the creatives) will launch on the next seasonal menu. This year, with a new companywide focus on quality (as opposed to value), the pressure is greater than ever. The goal is to get back on top and convince customers that you don't need a celebrity chef (à la Cactus Club's Rob Feenie) to create the best-in Earls speak, "soulfully premium"-food. The 14 recipes being reviewed this week have already passed a rigorous tasting panel of corporate executives in November (more on this later), and been reworked by executive chef Alym Hirji to make them more restaurant-friendly. But that doesn't guarantee the regional chefs (aka, the realists) will give them all the go-ahead. Especially not that mother*@$&! sourdough.

Of all artisan breads, sourdough made from scratch is one of the trickiest. The wild-yeast starter has to be fed, nurtured, and tended to like a gurgling baby. The proposed Earls recipe, which requires overnight fermentation and attentive kneading, stretching, folding, and resting, is a two-day process. Though irresistibly chewy and addictively tangy, the sourdough seems awfully ambitious to some.

"How is this going to work?" Phil Gallagher, regional chef for downtown Vancouver, gripes to his colleagues. Sitting around a restaurant table on the first day, after the dishes have all been presented, he lists off the difficulties. They don't have enough room on the kitchen work line. They don't have enough labour. They'd have to remove too many other items from the menu to keep their costs in line. Hirji agrees the sourdough could be challenging. If by the end of the week, it's not fitting the operational equation, it won't go forward, he assures. But for now, they have to at least try. Keep reading…

EXTRA: Learn more about six of Earls favourite dishes

Family Matters

 
  Leroy "Bus" Earl Fuller (born in Cincinatti in 1928) opened his first
  restaurant, the Green and White Drive-in, in Sunburst, Montana, in
  1954. He came north in the late '50s to franchise A&W restaurants in
  Edmonton, and opened Earls on Jasper Avenue in 1982 with his sons.
  (That's him pictured in the original location with Stan.) Despite
  competition between restaurants, he and the boys-Jeff (who runs Joey),
  Stewart (Saltlik Steakhouse in Banff and Calgary), and Stan-meet as a   
  board with family advisors four times a year. Stan was an early investor
  in the Cactus Club, founded by former Earls servers Richard Jaffray and
  Scott Morison, and continues to be a silent partner in the booming
  chain. Jaffray bought out Scott Morison, who went on to create Browns
  Social House. -Leah Golob 

 

In the crowded galley-sized test kitchen, a former dry goods storage closet beside the North Vancouver restaurant's rear delivery door, several chefs are hunched over a clear plastic container filled with warm water. They stare intently at a wad of dough stuck to the bottom: today's starter doesn't want to swim. Chef Reuben Major, director of culinary development and lead sourdough champion, remains optimistic. "Two-and-a-half years ago, we changed our burger buns and started making them from scratch," he explains, as we talk in the back kitchen hallway, squeezed between stacks of cardboard recycling. "We didn't think we could do it then, and now we'd never go back. Bread is one of those things that people get really excited about. We have some great bread and we have some average bread. I want us to have the best bread. What could our competitors do? It would take them years to get to the same level."

Almost on cue, whistles and cheers erupt from the test kitchen. "We have a floater!" Ontario's Scott Rolfson shouts. The third test is a charm for this young culture, which finally deigns to expel a trickle of trapped gas, buoyantly indicating that the dough will rise into fluffy loaves.

Earls' strategic objectives don't all hang on these fickle strains of lactic acid bacteria. The sourdough is Major's pet project. If Mo Jessa, recently appointed president of Earls Restaurants (the first non-family member to hold such a senior position) were going to use a food analogy to describe the company's goals, he'd say the future of Earls is more closely entwined with the green vines on ripe, juicy hothouse tomatoes.

Midweek, at a meeting with the regional managers, Jessa tells the story of a premium burger joint he visited in London, England. It was the hottest place in town. The burger was better than any he had ever tasted. But why was it so much better than his own? Earls has a handmade bun and an excellent-quality patty. What was dragging it down, he realized, was the tomato.

"We've stumbled, especially in the last seven years, on pricing and the food side of things," says Jessa, a refreshingly candid, 25-year company veteran who started as a junior prep cook. "We somehow accepted that shit romaine lettuce. We said, ‘Well, we're going to cover the hamburger with the bun and nobody sees it, so what does it matter?' We were making good money, by the way. And sales were going up like crazy. But we were lying to ourselves about the lettuce and the tomato." As with a soggy bun, those shortcuts eventually leak to the bottom line. Sales and profits have only softened marginally, but of bigger concern to Jessa? Earls is losing "the perception wars. We're not seen as innovative."

The search for genuinely profitable burger garnishes starts this afternoon as the chefs conduct a blind tasting of 13 tomatoes. Yesterday it was bacon. There's also a new leaf lettuce that's already being tested at select Alberta restaurants. "We want to be that tomato we used to brag about 10 years ago," says Jessa, rallying the troops.
From now on, he continues, "Everything's going to be elevated. Everything's going to have a story behind it. And everything's going to be more meaningful than ever before."

So long as those premium tomatoes pay off. "We're going to do this in our flagships and see if there's a return," says Roy Comesotti, operations leader for B.C. West, adding a dash of reality to the pep talk. "If not, there's no way from an investment standpoint that the family will put up with it.

Los Angeles doesn't seem the obvious place to rekindle a kitchen's lost soul. But there we were (a year ago this month), slowly letting the notches out on our belts as we ate our way through an astounding 97 dishes over 18 meals in four days. I was embedded on the marathon eating session with Major, Dawn Doucette, another chef from the Earls product development team, and beverage director Cameron Bogue. Major and Doucette take these sorts of research trips several times a year. Much like clothing buyers scouting the world's fashion capitals, we would be driving all over, from Venice Beach to Beverly Hills, to see what type of tacos were hot and predict what would be the new quinoa.

Our first lunch was at Lazy Ox Canteen in Little Tokyo, where we ordered almost everything on the menu. Nothing really impressed. The caramelized cauliflower was too oily, the coconut risotto overly sweet. Without even pausing for digestion, we headed to the Water Grill, a brass-tapped, San Francisco-style raw bar. The local summer oysters were flabby and the fritto misto utterly unremarkable. But the New England lobster roll in a butter-dredged hot dog bun caught our attention. It was classic comfort food with endless upgrade potential, and the first of many we would encounter.

"Smart move," Major nodded across the marble bar at Osteria Mozza, after watching me reach for the last wedge of puffy grilled sourdough, hesitate, and retreat. "You have to pace yourself on these trips," he advised. "And cleanse with a lot of water and steamed vegetables when you get home." There certainly wasn't any shortage of sourdough. We saw it everywhere, invariably served with burrata, fresh ricotta, or burr-ricotta, and grilled peaches. We ate a ton of grilled peaches.

"This confirms we're on the right track," said Doucette, explaining how they had fallen for a dish served with sourdough at New York's Laconda Verde the previous summer and were now raising their own wild-yeast starter. "We're trying to differentiate ourselves from the competition by offering truly fresh, handcrafted, housemade menu items," said Major, who was pleased that we kept running into bread-and-butter pickles (another new recipe they were working on.)

In 1982, when Stan Fuller and his father, Bus, decided to turn their struggling Edmonton coffee shops into simple beer-and-burger joints, they had two choices: "Cheap, or ultra-fresh and handmade," Stan said in a Canadian Business article last summer. Fuller Sr. apparently didn't think there was money to be made from cheap burgers. (Strange, or perhaps telling, since he had once been Canada's biggest A&W franchisee.)

In any case, Earls was built on quality hamburgers and inexpensive draft beer served by pretty waitresses in bright green-and-white rooms strung with papier-mâché parrots. As they expanded, beer and burgers seemed too simple, too easy to imitate. So the two men began putting professional chefs in charge of product development and took Earls upmarket with then-exotic menu items like teriyaki chicken.

The first product development chef was Larry Stewart, a culinary Olympics-trained chef recruited from Fairmont Hotels. He wasn't a celebrity on par with Rob Feenie or Chris Mills, today's top chefs at sibling-rival competitors Cactus Club and Joey. (In a bizarrely incestuous business triangle, Joey is owned by Stan Fuller's brother Jeff, while the Fuller family has a silent interest in Cactus Club; a third brother, Stewart, runs Saltlik restaurants in Banff and Calgary.) But in the '80s, he was hot stuff for a chain restaurant. "We had elite people in our culinary department," says Jessa, noting that it was the highly innovative Larry Stewart who created and launched the sushi crab cone (now a sushi prawn roll), Earls' bestselling menu item of all time.

In 2004, when Jessa was the company's executive chef in charge of culinary concepts, he and Stan Fuller hired Michael Noble, a bona fide celebrity chef (and the first Canadian to appear on Iron Chef, six years before Rob Feenie), to lead product development-remotely, from Calgary. "It wasn't the best-case scenario for either of us, and I still apologize for not doing more to make that work," Jessa laments. When Noble left after two years, culinary operations switched to more practical matters. The focus was on consistency, rather than ideas, and making sure they could deliver the food they already had in place. As Jessa alluded to earlier with his tomato analogy, the strategy has brought them to a point where they can execute their recipes with ease, but not without sacrifices along the way. Now the competition is heating up. Earls, along with Joey and now Cactus Club, is expanding aggressively into Eastern Canada. Shitty lettuce won't cut it with the power brokers on Toronto's King Street.

Jessa isn't planning to hire another celebrity chef, though it has been discussed. What's more important to him is that all their chefs, from Denver to Saskatoon, feel pride and ownership over every burger they serve. "We want to empower people. We want them to say ‘This is our food,' not just a reflection of the executive chef."

Of course, new ideas have to come from somewhere. "We have to fortify our product development team with more creativity," says Jessa, noting that the company is now spending more on the department than ever-a million dollar this year (more than advertising or human resources). That's a lot of tomatoes.

If Major was feeling the heat, he certainly wasn't showing it. Four months after returning from L.A., his team presented the final versions of 11 new dishes for the spring and summer menu. Whittled down from an initial list of 40, these new items had already undergone endless trials and test tastings with the executive panel. On a Friday morning in early November (one month until Tweak Week), the panel gathered around a dining room table at the North Vancouver restaurant. Along with Major and Jessa, the group included Kim Hirji  (product development manager; married to Alym, they met at Earls when she was a server and he was a cook), Tony Maretic (chief financial officer), Monique Gomel (vice-president of marketing), and Claudia Owen (vice-president of purchasing).

The lobster and prawn roll was a runaway crowd favourite. Inspired by the lobster rolls we tasted in L.A., the filling consisted of one ounce lobster and two ounces prawn, perfectly poached and folded in light citrus dressing, stacked high in a buttery brioche bun (a variation of the housemade hamburger bun), griddled to order. The dressing was much lighter than in the L.A. rolls, the brioche more decadent. But as much as everyone loved the sandwich's flavour, there were concerns about its size and price. "Seems small." "Is it a lunch or dinner item?" "It's more expensive than our Bronco Burger. We can't have that." I wanted to know what had happened to the fabulously fluffy thrice-cooked fries it was being served with at the last tasting panel. (It now comes with regular skinny fries.) "We're still working on them," said Major, explaining their four-and-a-half-minute bill time was too long; the regular fries only take three minutes. They have to shave those 90 seconds down before the new fries are operationally ready.

Beef carpaccio with devilled eggs, tentatively titled Steak and Eggs, was a conundrum. Everyone loved the dish and acknowledged that their menu is low on meat appetizers. Major reminded everyone that it was the big chief, Stan Fuller, who'd pushed for a beef carpaccio. But let's not forget about Cactus Club, which already has it on the menu. "Don't we want to separate ourselves from the competition?" "Just because we want to be different doesn't mean we want to miss out on something great."

Sourdough with whipped ricotta, lettuce wraps, Parmesan-crusted halibut-the dishes kept coming. The scrutiny continued. "Yay or nay," asked Jessa, after a 10-minute discussion about the new vegetables and smashed potatoes on the roast chicken with avocado-tomatillo sauce (another L.A. inspiration). "Once we do this, there's no turning back." "And remember," added Major, "when we didn't change enough, people got bored.

The dishes that passed this round (all except the lettuce wraps, in the end) were handed over to executive chef Alym Hirji, who ensures they're restaurant-ready by making small adjustments, reworking portion sizes, and tightening the wording so there's no ambiguity when a recipe is read by a line cook in Winnipeg. They'll be tested at Tweak Week by all the regional chefs, who will remake the recipes over and over again, tighten them even further, analyze their costs, and give the final thumbs up or down. Those that pass will be rolled out to the eight Earls flagship stores for testing. If successful, one or two might eventually launch companywide.

It's a long, complicated, ever-evolving process. In previous years, the new dishes would have been tested with customers in North Vancouver then handed over to the regions. The old system had its pros and cons. On the upside, the operational costs were calculated in advance and there was time to work out kinks in execution. On the downside, North Vancouver is a small trial base with tastes that don't necessarily reflect the rest of the country. And if there are problems down the line, the regional chefs could pass the buck back to product development.

"We're taking away the blame culture," Jessa explained. "When we roll things out, if something doesn't work, now everyone takes ownership for the failure."

On that first day in December, the regional chefs are still bitching about the sourdough. "Does it look like we're being listened to?" one fumes, waving the menu over his head and reiterating his concerns about pressure from above to keep labour costs down. I slide away to the test kitchen to ask Major what all the fuss is about. Do they not know that they'll have a final say in this process? Why are they acting like the sourdough is a done deal? "There's no way they didn't know what was happening this week," he says, shaking his head.

I'm not so sure. I had trouble keeping up with all the operational changes and shifting itineraries as I followed the yearlong process. Nobody bothered to tell me straight out about the new strategic emphasis on elevated quality. (I only inadvertently clued in, a few months after L.A., when I saw the new Peugeot salt-and-pepper mills that had been purchased for every table in the flagship restaurants. Peugeot? At Earls?) The big picture was never fully explained in anything more than vague terms about "soulfulness" and "storytelling." When Jessa was promoted to president, I was told it had nothing to do with CEO (and former president) Stan Fuller stepping back. On the contrary, another executive told me later, at a party of all places, Fuller was indeed removing himself from some of the day-to-day operations to take more time to enjoy life. And what about those lettuce wraps that made it onto the Tweak Week menu? I thought they were given a nay in November? While I'm no expert in these things, internal communication does not appear to be Earls' greatest organizational strength, and I could understand the regional chefs' frustrations.

A few days later, the chefs have changed their tune. "Anything's doable," says Nick Divencenzo, regional chef for Calgary. "Is it valuable? Sure. No one is making their own bread. We just have to figure out a way of doing it more efficiently."

Throughout the week, the chefs work away at the recipes, devising better ways to slice the lobster roll (so it's easier to fill), adjust the ratio of lobster to prawn (to justify the price and make it taste sweeter), prep the tomatillo sauce (so the avocado stays fresh), and streamline the smashed potatoes (so there are fewer hand movements involved). But by Friday, they still haven't mastered the sourdough, and it gets the axe.

"We want to see a sourdough or a really high-quality bread on the menu," Denver's Darren Sawchuk explains, describing the tough conversation that went on for hours the previous night. "But is there something else we can try with less steps involved?"

The product development team retreats to the dining room for debriefing. "I don't think any of us should feel bad," Major reassures the others. "I think everyone in there agrees that this is one of the best breads they've ever had. Keep in mind that this process is designed to make them accountable for their profits….They're afraid to do something like this."

Jessa is sanguine about the decision to forge ahead with simpler bread. "I think a compromise is probably a good idea. We are affordable luxury. We're not luxury." In the constant push-and-pull between creative product development and realistic organizational practicalities, the sourdough will rise again. (In fact, after slight modifications to the recipe, it's approved for rollout on July 31.)

It's now mid March, and the new menu items, after intensive training across the country, have been live for two weeks. The lobster and prawn roll, priced at $18, has been so successful it's already approved to go companywide in June. When I visit Earls Yaletown restaurant to taste it for myself, the sandwich is just as plump and rich and perfectly golden as at any of the taste trials. Nobody tells me any "soulful" stories about the new feature items. 
But the Peugeot salt-and-pepper shakers-along with the red ramekins, wooden platters, and other new tabletop items-do indeed make the place feel "elevated."

I return the next week to sit in on oneof the follow-up server training sessions. My ears tingle as I overhear a manager, who is supposed to be testing the servers, tell them that capers are pickled peppercorns (not exactly). One server describes the lobster roll as a "light lunch option." (Hardly, it's drenched in butter.) After all that time and money invested in developing the new dishes, it would appear that front of house is still a weak link.

Upstairs, the lounge has been turned into a boardroom for an operational leaders meeting. Major, having recently returned from another research trip to Miami and Chicago, is presenting a fall menu sneak peak. The first item is an eggplant caponata and goat cheese coulis served with-yes, you guessed it-grilled sourdough.

 

Learn more about six of Earls favourite dishes

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