By Sean Moon
For a company that prides itself on an ability to deviate from the norm when it comes to service and hospitality, SIR Corp. has been developing a successful, results-driven culture led by its CEO president Peter Fowler since the firm grew out of the amalgamation of several restaurant groups and eateries over 25 years ago.
Comprised of such well-known Canadian foodservice brands as Jack Astor’s®, Alice Fazooli’s®, Canyon Creek® and SCADDABUSH Italian Kitchen and Bar®, SIR Corp. has grown consistently under Fowler’s direction since its earliest roots in 1990, when the first Jack Astor’s was opened in St. Catherines, Ontario. Today SIR Corp. (SIR stands for the aptly named Service Inspired Restaurants) consists of 60 restaurants. SIR’s flagship brand, Jack Astor’s, has over 40 locations across Canada. SIR employs over 5,000 people and generated $281 million in sales in its most recent fiscal year.
Trial by fire
Fowler, who took over as CEO in 2004 after serving the company in a number of senior management roles, got his start in the industry with a “trial by fire” after graduating from the University of Western Ontario Business School in 1979.
“My first job was to build a go-kart track, snack bar and roller rink,” Fowler recalls. “The job quickly changed when the operating partner got caught stealing. I was made general manager the next day of a very tired 150-room hotel, 300-seat restaurant and 450-seat banquet hall, as well as a campground and the small amusement park it was operating. This is often referred to as the ‘School of Hard Knocks,’ a great way to learn to survive.”
While Fowler was launched head first into his early foodservice career as a result of taking over the hotel restaurant facility (known as Prudhomme’s Landing near London, Ontario), he says the restaurant was the easiest to fix up from a capital perspective and created instant cash flow.
“The excitement of the instant feedback on what you were doing created an opportunity to find solutions quickly, and to test my creative thinking and problem solving. It was also an outlet for creativity.”
Emphasis on service
Fowler’s ability to think creatively and solve problems paired nicely with the foodservice philosophy and passion that became the foundation for SIR Corp. With a company goal of being the first choice for guests, staff team members, supplier partners, communities and investors, its obvious that Fowler’s perspective has infused the entire organization with a strong emphasis on creating world-class customer service.
“My philosophy of food and hospitality can be summed up by one very simple phrase: To be successful in this industry you need to care about all aspects – food, service, atmosphere, energy, and be passionate about hospitality,” says Fowler. “The key issues that I am concerned about when it comes to food and bar service is the quality of the service and the products. Whether we source local or otherwise, I believe it is incumbent on us to deliver to the guest the best possible experience for the money. If it can be locally sourced that is important, but it also needs to be sustainable. Critical, however, is that the quality remain.”
Fowler further describes SIR Corp. as “a group of individuals who together understand that being hospitable is a fundamental backbone to the company, and as a result, we strive to build restaurants that guests have a connection to.”
With the company name itself derived from a commitment to inspired service, Fowler says his motivation and inspiration comes from both internal and external sources.
“My motivation is rooted in an entrepreneurial competitive streak from my younger days,” Fowler explains. “I get my inspiration from all aspects of life, observing people doing exceptional things. Every day I get up with the intent to move the business and our team members forward in this quest to provide a better hospitality experience, in balance with a solid fiscal responsibility to the stakeholders. I love the challenge.”
As most company leaders can attest, the challenges of operating a successful foodservice establishment or company can be many. Often, says Fowler, those challenges can be met head-on by some creative thinking and seizing opportunities when they arise.
“Most of the challenges in the foodservice industry are related to the changing social environment,” says Fowler. “Tastes and needs change, and these show up as challenges or we find opportunities to do something better by figuring out the right solution. The key to the challenging environment is being innovative.”
A proud father of two daughters, Fowler enjoys spending much of his spare time with them at the family cottage in Muskoka or participating in activities such as downhill skiing. He says that while running a large company in the Canadian foodservice industry is definitely hard work, it can feel less like work if you take pleasure in small victories.
“Like with family, simple things usually provide the most enjoyment.”
Sean Moon is the Managing Editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.