By Sean Moon
Most people would think that success in the foodservice industry can only be achieved through culinary education, related business experience or having a lifelong passion for food. Brent Poulton has come a long way towards proving them wrong.
As CEO of Ontario-based St. Louis Bar and Grill restaurants, Poulton is the first to admit that his introduction to the industry came in a rather unorthodox fashion. But that doesn’t mean he’s any less deserving of the remarkable success he has achieved in just 14 years.
Long and winding road
Moving south from his hometown of Sudbury, Ont. to attend university in Toronto in the 1980s, Poulton began his zig-zag journey into the restaurant industry while studying for his degree in urban and regional planning. In what he calls an “age old story” Poulton met his girlfriend (and future wife) while in university and soon faced the arduous task of trying to find a job during a recession after graduating in 1992.
“I ended up, through a friend, getting a job doing residential mortgage underwriting. At the same time, my girlfriend’s father was opening a restaurant and he asked me if I wanted to manage the restaurant for him, which was kind of interesting since I had never worked in a restaurant before in my life,” Poulton recalls with a laugh.
Labour of love
For the better part of two years, Poulton would go to his underwriting job during the day then go into work at the restaurant at night. Poulton says it quickly became apparent to him that he absolutely loved the restaurant business and hated residential mortgage underwriting. His future father-in-law then asked him to come into the business full-time.
“It’s quite a stretch going from urban and regional planning to mortgage underwriting to running a restaurant — considering the fact that I flunked out of Grade 11 math because I was no good at it,” says Poulton.
With the confidence gained from managing the restaurant, Poulton agreed to buy out his father-in-law, even though it meant stretching himself financially. With a young family at home, Poulton says he did whatever was necessary to raise the money for the acquisition.
Poulton soon got to work growing his new business, expanding from a single original store to starting the franchise company in 2002. This year, St. Louis is poised to open its 50th store in Mississauga, Ont. and is on track for bringing that total closer to 60 locations (corporate and franchised) by the end of 2016. Unlike many chains, however, Poulton says he doesn’t like to refer to St. Louis as having stores, locations or restaurants. To him, the company is a brand and what he and his staff engage in every day is brand-building.
“To myself and everyone around me, St. Louis is a living-breathing thing with a personality and a culture that we’ve worked hard to develop on a daily basis,” says Poulton. “That’s where the guest connection is truly made and what entices people to come long before they enter one of the restaurants. That individual has an expectation of what that experience is going to be and what you work toward is gaining that trust that the brand will fulfill those expectations.”
Creating a memorable experience
The ability to connect with people has always been at the centre of Poulton’s philosophy in the restaurant business. In fact, Poulton believes the foodservice industry has far less to do with food than about creating a memorable experience for his customers.
“Nobody’s coming to your restaurant because they’re looking for a pure retail experience. There’s an emotional connection to coming into the restaurant and having chicken wings, ribs and a beer. The key is to understand who your guests are, what their expectations are and what motivates them so that you can ensure your strategies and products are not only aligned with what the guest is looking for but that they are being carried out.”
Outside of the day-to-day operations of running a small restaurant empire, Poulton enjoys spending time with his family that includes his wife, a son in university and a daughter in high school. He is also very proud of his company’s association with Shining Through, a small private school for children with autism, to which St. Louis has contributed nearly $1 million.
Keys to success
While his journey to success may not have been linear in the traditional sense, Poulton believes there are a few keys to success in the industry and he enjoys being able to pay it forward, much like his mentors had done for him.
“When you consider some of the situations that you have to deal with and the time commitment that you need to have, there has to be integrity and consistency in values in everything you do. Consumers have so much more choice than they ever did before. You are building loyalists one experience at a time.
“Above all, make sure you believe in yourself, what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. And at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”