The social restaurateur: Scott Morison, President & CEO, Browns Restaurant Group

Scott Morison considers himself a restaurateur first and a businessman second. As his company Browns Restaurant Group explodes in growth, it appears his inner entrepreneurial spirit must take over as he envisions the now 31-location chain as a $1 billion company over the next 12 to 15 years.

Morison dipped his toe into sudsy service industry waters at age 14, washing dishes at a Husky Car and Truck Stop in Winnipeg. As his family relocated through his younger years, he complemented his foodservice background working at Pizza Hut in Calgary, and then finally at one of the original Earl’s Kitchen + Bar locations while he underwent a two-year professional cooking program. Moving to Vancouver mid-way through, he transferred his schooling to British Columbia Institute of Technology while finding part-time work at a Vancouver Earl’s.
Sandwiches and ice cream

Through working in Vancouver, Morison met renowned restaurateur Richard Jaffray – who was serving tables at the time, opting out of the opportunity to pay rent while living on a sailboat. The two 21-year-olds hit it off and eventually opened a sandwich and ice cream shop together called Café Cucamonga’s. The former Earl’s employees maintained a close relationship with the company’s founders, Leroy “Bus” Fuller and son Stanley.

After two years, Morison and Jaffray sold their first venture, and with funding from their mentors-turned-financiers, the Fullers, opened up a breakfast concept, Cactus Club Café.

“After four months, we ran out of money,” explains Morison. “It was an unmitigated disaster. We went back to Bus and Stan, and they basically told us that they weren’t going to fund us anymore. They told us to shut the door. We went back and said, ‘Well, that’s not going to work.’ This was our first opportunity at full service.

“So [Jaffray and I] just said, ‘What do we know? We know how to have fun and turn up the music and pour some beer.’ The next day, we shut down the breakfast component, and really, like they say, the rest is history.”

The “aha” moment

Morison was involved with Cactus Club for 18 years, and helped build it to 12 wildly successful locations at the time. Towards the end of his time at the company, Morison had what he calls his “Oprah a-ha moment.”

“I saw all of these young people borrowing family money and opening restaurants and not understanding how to design and run them properly, and they were losing everything,” says Morison. “I thought there was an opportunity to fill a void with a smaller product that was more franchise-able, in what I would call the ‘premium league.’ And really, I didn’t see anything in my travels anywhere in the world. There was no small, full-service, sexy little model out there. So that’s how Browns Socialhouse started. I sold my [Cactus Club Café] shares. They thought I was nuts.”

Browns Socialhouse positions itself as a restaurant/pub hybrid in the premium casual dining category. Typically a smaller footprint, Morison likes to aim for a 3,000 to 3,500-square-foot “sweet spot.”

Massive expansion plans

Locally owned and operated, franchises currently span across Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, with units under construction in Manitoba and Ontario. The company also franchises three locations in Washington State under the name Scotty Browns. There are currently 78 locations under contract, including the company’s first Ontario venture set to open this October in Erin Mills, which will be a corporate training restaurant. Ten store Multi-Unit Development Agreements (MUDAs) are in place for Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, with smaller agreements in place across the western part of the country.

The conception of the company name was mimicked after Morison saw the founders from American chain Smith & Wollensky being interviewed on CNN, who established their moniker after flipping through the pages in a phone book and using the name after the first listing they saw. (Morison admits to taking “a mulligan” after his first try.)

“I knew instantly that it was brilliant because it didn’t mean anything,” says Morison. “Browns is a generic name where you can you make your own identity over 10 to 15 years. So the first two locations were called Browns Restaurant and Bar, and the Socialhouse wasn’t determined until the third one because of the all of the online craziness. I thought it was a great tag, because really, Browns is who we are, and the Socialhouse is what we are.” Browns Restaurant Group has trademarked the term “Socialhouse” within Canada and plans to offer franchises in additional sectors of the casual dining market in the future under different names.

Maintains lofty goals

Morison’s goal is to sustain this growth, with a 50-per-cent mix of MUDAs and the rest with one-unit deals organically. With a vision for 100-plus stores in the next five years, the goals are lofty, but Morison believes the systems are in place for the next big pushes into Eastern Canada.

Morison sees his biggest challenge on the horizon in upgrading his menu and kitchen operation. The chain recently started pressing its own burgers, cuts its own fries and makes its own stocks. Seeing the sense of pride that his kitchen staff felt with the burger change, Morison wishes to see that carried over in other areas of the kitchen.

Asked if he has any business tips for his peers in the foodservice industry, Morison responds twofold.

“What I talk about with my people is when you go to work every day, make sure that you leave work at night and know that you changed or improved something. Leave it one per cent better. Don’t walk out at the end of the day if you haven’t. It’s the old Japanese kaizen method of improving the business by one per cent. I hired a consultant in our first year at Café Cucamonga’s, and she told us this. Hence, 35 years later, we’re marching up to the billion dollar mark, and it’s in our culture.

“And love what you do. If you don’t love what you do, don’t do this.”

Spoken like a true restaurateur.

About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @ChesterGoSocial.

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