All in the Family

There’s the family you’re born with, and the family you choose. With his now-international JOEY Restaurants brand, CEO Jeff Fuller has the best of both

By Sara Burnside Menuck

From afar, you might think it was inevitable for Jeff Fuller to make a career in the restaurant industry. The son of respected restaurateur Leroy Earl (Bus) Fuller, Jeff grew up surrounded by chefs, servers and serviettes, “but you know,” he says mildly, “I wouldn’t say I didn’t consider doing anything else.”

Whatever other options may have been on the table, Fuller, like so many students now and in generations past, found himself working at restaurants throughout university, both for the money and the social aspect. But he didn’t really consider the restaurant business as a career “until I got out of school and sort of missed it when I wasn’t hanging around the restaurant.”

“The restaurant,” of course, refers to his father’s veritable restaurant empire, including the Earls chain of upscale eateries, which has over 60 locations across both Canada and the U.S. and is now headed by Jeff’s brother Stan. Jeff struck out on his own in 1992, opening his first restaurant in Calgary: a pasta house called Joey’s Tomato’s. “It was really a collaborative effort on the first store, and I was really focused in on management and trying to figure that whole thing out.”

Joey Restaurants CEO Jeff Fuller

Growing pains and gains

Fuller did, in fact, figure things out. Since those humble beginnings in the nineties, JOEY Restaurants has grown to become one of the most successful restaurant chains in Canada, boasting 28 locations in about as many years; the 28th, JOEY Shipyards, recently opened in North Vancouver, and the company has been aggressively pursuing expansion in the United States.

“It’s amazing we actually made it through,” Fuller says. While the original Joey’s focused on Italian cuisine, the brand soon expanded its offerings, particularly in 1998, when chef Chris Mills – who remains the brand’s executive chef to this day – was brought into the Joey’s family. “He really changed the way we looked at food… opened our eyes up to flavours and things we could do.”

With Mills’s help, Joey’s shifted from its Italian focus to a broader Mediterranean theme, and then in the early 2000s, the brand underwent a major renovation. What emerged was JOEY, a chain of restaurants specifically branded to individual locations, united by a globally inspired menu.

While JOEY’s international cuisine helped the brand stand out from its competitors, it also posed some unique challenges when Fuller began looking at international expansion. “There’s a bit of a stigma about Canadian restaurants moving into the U.S.,” Fuller notes, but adds he hasn’t experienced it. Instead, he found that JOEY’s eclectic global menu initially didn’t strike a chord with American diners: “When we were first down there — and you’ll recall this is 15, 16 years ago — they wanted to put you into a category. Are you Italian, are you a steakhouse, are you a Mexican place…”

He credits the popularity of The Food Network with helping to change that attitude, by helping to educate people through introducing them to independent chefs who didn’t fit into those cut-and-dry categories. “It allowed us to make more sense to people. It happened kind of slowly, and then all of a sudden, it felt like people kind of get it.”

Today, JOEY has five locations in the U.S., in Seattle and L.A., with three more opening in Aventura, Fla., Houston and Manhattan Beach. “Those are the ones I can tell you about,” Fuller coyly adds.

Location, location, location

As CEO, Fuller keeps tabs on most aspects of the business. “I dabble in every part,” he says, adding that he particularly enjoys working on the creative side with the chefs and designers: “I try not to get in anybody’s way, but we’re pretty open to giving all of our opinions. I can fly at a high level in that regard.”

Primarily, though, he’s very active in expanding JOEY’s reach, from identifying new markets for the brand to scouting individual locations and negotiating leases. Determining the perfect spot for a new restaurant is more of an art than a science: “I wish I knew 100-per-cent how to put it through the hopper and always figure it out,” Fuller says. There are a few basic tenets of “good location” logic, including good visibility, parking, neighbourhood density and high traffic, but largely, each lease is different, and it comes down to a gut feeling.

Sometimes he calls in a second opinion. “I think it was last spring, we were looking at U.S. locations and I couldn’t get quite a gut check on it, so I sent [my father] down there to meet the broker,” Fuller recalls. Bus came back with a thumbs-up on the location.

Family business

“The big thing about my dad is he had incredible loyalty from the people who worked for him,” Fuller says of his father, who passed in October, 2019. “He was very generous in many ways, not just financially. I think he created huge loyalty through his connection with people.”

That’s something that Fuller has maintained throughout all the identity changes and expansions JOEY has undergone during the past three decades. It’s something that’s been baked into the JOEY brand. “It’s everything,” he says of his self-described people-first approach.

Named Canada’s top employer for young people in 2020 by Mediacorp, JOEY Restaurants maintains an impressive 30-per-cent manager turnover rate; by comparison, Restaurant Insider estimated in 2018 that 43 per cent of managers leave within the first year. The secret, it turns out, comes back to JOEY’s roots: a deep sense of family and human connection.

A big piece of JOEY’s staff-retention success comes from dedicating the time and effort to start with the right people in the first place. “Sometimes you take your best server, and you put him in a manager position because you think that seems like a natural progression, but actually it’s not always the best position,” Fuller observes. “Maybe they’re a great server because they like making people super happy. As a manager, part of your role is to hold people to account, and those two things don’t always cross over well for people.”

Selection, therefore, is a huge part of the process, which includes some testing of potential hires or employees up for promotion, followed up by training. “Because we pick the right people, culturally, the people who do well with us are those who want to know exactly where they stand. They aren’t defensive.”

Coaching also plays a large role in building JOEY’s management culture, with a strong coaching program initially developed by Royal Roads University that was then tailored to the company. In addition to the coaching program, JOEY also offers further education for employees, such as paying for Red Seal certification for its chefs, along with management-skills training to help them learn how to surround themselves with great people. “We’re not only teaching them how to receive coaching, but how to execute it, and we spend quite a bit of money doing it,” Fuller says.

“We’re also pretty good at realizing when we make a selection error,” he adds. He recognizes that sometimes, errors happen, but it’s the company’s responsibility to address that when it does happen. “We take the onus on the selection error because all they did was apply, or we recruited them. But if it’s not a fit after trying hard, it’s only fair to make sure that those people probably exit the organization.”

A winning, well-constructed team is only half of the puzzle, though. Fuller, along with the rest of the executive team, has taken care to create a company culture that rewards employees and listens to their needs. He points to JOEY’s maternity program as an example: “Over 50 per cent of our management is female. We have a strong maternity program for them, because we heard that always made people nervous.”

Another key part to keeping a low manager turnover rate has been getting management to invest in their own success — literally. In 2011, the company introduced the JEIT program, or the JOEY Employee Investment Trust. “We realized down the road, what are people’s stake going to be, and how can we help them down the line?” Fuller says.

Through the program, managers are able to hold shares in a select group of restaurants; they participate shoulder-to-shoulder with executives, including Fuller himself, on the returns. “It’s very exciting for them,” he says. “They have their own calls to talk about results, and I just love seeing it. I love sending the cheques every quarter, and I’m sure people love receiving them.”

The passion Fuller has for his company, and the people in it, is palpable — and it’s paid off in terms of building a familial culture that invests as much back into its employees as its employees invest into it, no matter how long they stay with the company. It harks back to Fuller’s own experience as a student, working at a restaurant: “I’m just super proud of all the people I’ve encountered over time,” he says. “A lot of students who are now lawyers or accountants or in marketing or whatever, they’re professionals out there, and they say they’ve still taken some of what they’ve learned [working at JOEY].”

For all its expansion and success, JOEY remains as it began: a family affair, no matter how broad and varied that family has become – something that is reflected both in its restaurants’ ambience, and in its corporate culture. “It’s such a people-heavy game,” Fuller says. “It’s just the best part. It’s everything we do.”