Passion for Product: CRAFT Beer Market’s PJ L’Heureux

From the summer 2018 issue of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News

By Sean Moon

From a young age, PJ L’Heureux has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After starting a DJ service at age 16, that spirit helped him grow his business to include concert and nightclub promotion, which led him to eventually open two of his own night clubs — all before he was 25 years old.

L’Heureux has since continued to be a leader Calgary’s hospitality industry, opening some of its most exciting food and entertainment venues, including CRAFT Beer Market. The concept has now expanded beyond provincial borders to include locations in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto, with more on the way.

Passion for Craft Beer

L’Heureux nearly stumbled out of the craft beer gate: despite loving the stuff at 18, he quickly found brewing beer wasn’t for him. Serving it, however, suited him fine. While travelling, L’Heureux became enamoured with international beer culture and developed relationships with brewers across the globe, eventually realizing that something like CRAFT Beer Market could change the way people in Canada think about restaurants. L’Heureux got his first glimpse of the future on a trip to Portland Oregon — a longtime craft beer destination — where he saw craft beer and local food side-by-side. The sight brought the CRAFT concept into focus: a long list of local and international craft beer, accompanied by local food, all in the same spot.

L’Heureux tinkered with the concept for a year before approaching longtime friends John Liwag and Rob Swiderski about turning the idea into a reality. The three of them didn’t waste time, quickly polishing the idea, building the team and jumping on a location on Calgary’s historic Beltline. It became clear after launching in 2011 that CRAFT Calgary was an instant hit.

Love for People

Much like with his background as a DJ and event promoter, L’Heureux says it was his love for people and entertaining that initially drew him to a career in the restaurant industry.

“I love restaurants, love people, and the energy in restaurants,” says L’Heureux. “I am drawn to the energy and the fast-paced environment. My whole life I have been creating an atmosphere for people to gather, and there is no better place for this than a restaurant. If you look around a vibrant restaurant it is amazing to see people escape from their lives for a moment in time.”

L’Heureux’s passion for the craft beer movement and community is evident in everything he does. He loves the small business model and the ability to have a positive impact in the communities where he opens his restaurants. L’Heureux’s family values and belief in community involvement run deep through the entire CRAFT concept and he would have it no other way. The biggest excitement he gets about opening in new markets is getting to know the local breweries and farms that he can partner and connect with in the community.

“We support local craft breweries and our goal is to have 50 per cent of our taps in each location dedicated to local breweries,” says L’Heureux. “We also support local producers in every market. Although we have the same menu in all locations, the produce, beef, chicken, and even cheese is different because it comes from our local producers. We also made it a mandate to have a 100-per-cent sustainable seafood program.”

Doing the Right Thing

L’Heureux says he maintains a do-the-right-thing philosophy when it comes to his customers’ experience, a mindset that also extends to his staff and relationship with suppliers.

“Team up with people who believe in their products or services, support the small guys and always have fun doing it. That means we support local Canadian suppliers whenever possible. We know it costs more sometimes and it’s not easy, but my belief is doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest way.”

Like many restaurateurs, L’Heureux believes that one of the biggest challenges of working in the foodservice industry is controlling rising costs, both in terms of labour and cost of goods sold, without sacrificing core values and beliefs.

“Some people believe that giving the consumer the least expensive product or cutting costs are ways to control rising costs, but this is dangerous in my opinion,” L’Heureux explains. “At CRAFT, we think outside the box, whether is it with partnerships, or even with technology to solve the issues without sacrificing what we deliver to our guest, or our team. The world is changing fast and adapting thoughtfully and quickly will help any restaurant.”

A devoted family man who enjoys skiing, surfing and spending time at the lake, L’Heureux says he has big plans for the future of CRAFT and its place in the Canadian foodservice industry. Among projects under development, the company is scheduled to open CRAFT Kelowna this summer in an historic building on the waterfront with a 250-seat rooftop patio that overlooks Okanagan Lake.

When asked for any advice he might have for someone looking to get started in the foodservice industry, L’Heureux responds with his typical entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

“Do it! Whatever career path you want to take the foodservice industry will give you skills that you will have for life. Jump in! You’ll love it!”

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