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Earls dining empire's push eastward a long time coming

At 82, Leroy (Bus) Earl Fuller is a legend in the restaurant trade, having come out of Montana as a young A&W franchisee and built the Earls casual-dining empire from a Western Canadian base. The Earls concept of drinking and dining has expanded to include brands such as Joey's, Saltlik and Cactus Club (of which Mr. Fuller is part-owner). Except for a brief flurry 30 years ago, Mr. Fuller has never made a big splash in Eastern Canada - particularly in the meet-and mingle areas of Toronto's financial district. That changes next month when he and his four sons open the first Earls in the King-Bay-York corridor (and 62nd in total) - the latest move in an Eastern offensive for the Vancouver company.

Why this thrust into Ontario now?

It's a long story, but I had sort of a gentleman's agreement with people - I'm not naming names or companies - that if they stayed out of the West, we would stay out of the East. That was a poor, poor decision on our part because I think we gave up a lot more. That's why we haven't been in the East for a very long time. But we're finding it a very lucrative market even at this late stage when you've got a lot of establishments in there.

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Before this Bay Street-area opening, where were you in Toronto?

We've opened an Earls out in Mississauga and we're doing real well; we have two stores in Toronto now. We have a Joey restaurant up in Don Mills and that is a very lucrative market.

We've expanded about as much as we can in the West and we've got a full house. We're just eating on ourselves now. In Vancouver, we've got six stores in a five-block area and we're building another one.

Is there a difference between the downtown Vancouver market and Toronto?

I don't think so. Toronto is going to be really good for us. And we've done some expanding into the U.S. We've got three stores in Denver, and four stores in Seattle, and they're all doing well.

But we're doing better in Toronto than in the U.S. So a big thrust of our expansion is going to be in the East. I think we'd be looking for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 stores in the Toronto area within the next five years.

So that's clearly the end of that gentleman's agreement. What happened?

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They crossed the line and put a restaurant in Calgary, so the agreement went dead. They broke the line first, so we felt we could come into the East. And they're friends of mine. But there wasn't really anything stopping us before. [When the agreement was made]it was sort of an over-two-cocktails decision.

Now, I think we'll be moving into other markets like Ottawa and London. I hope within the next two years we're going to try something in Quebec too because Quebec is a very good market.

Have you made some mistakes in building this business?

We've made mistakes, and we've learned a lot. I started in the hamburger business with Earls. When we first started, it was nothing but a non-English pub - we just had beer and hamburgers. We didn't have wine, we didn't have hard booze, we didn't have anything. We've developed over the years out of that basic concept into what we are now, which is in the high end of the casual dining business.

You'd do it the same way?

Yeah. I might skip all those [outlets]that weren't quite so profitable and go right into the rich stuff - but how do you know those things?

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If you were to pass on your business wisdom, what's the big thing you've learned?

People down here at the club [near my winter home in Scottsdale, Ariz.]try to talk to me about food. I say, "I don't know whether or not I'm that great a food person. I know food and I know when I like it." But my big strength has been in hiring people - in having good people and consistency. The things that are the most important are consistent product and service, and the right people to run the stores. I don't know what else there is to business.

The boys are basically running it now. [Oldest son]Stan runs the Earls stores and Jeff runs the Joey's chain and I'm sitting down here in Scottsdale overlooking the pool and the golf course.

How's the economy doing from an Earls' viewpoint?

It's bounced back a little bit. We were down about 5 per cent in volume last year which I didn't think was too bad. We heard some disaster stories in the industry, and I think we avoided them and I think we're coming back again this year. We'll be back where we were a year ago.

It was far worse in the U.S. than Canada, especially in certain areas. I know because I have my winter home in Scottsdale. The areas that got hurt are the ones that had the biggest expansion, and that was Florida, Arizona and Nevada. They just built so many homes and there's just a glut of them on the market right now.

Did you have a mentor or hero in business?

I owe a lot to the guy that started A&W in Canada, Dick Bolte. He gave me my first start in the business by giving me the franchise for Edmonton. I was supposed to build four stores, and I think we ended up building 12 in the city. That was my start and I never looked back. So I owe a lot to him for giving me the opportunity. He took a guy out of Sunburst, Mont., and gave him a chance.

Was your father a businessman?

No, my dad was a hard-rock miner, He'd never done business. I got it all on my own. I don't know why, where it came from, or why I got it, but I just sort of wanted to be on my own and work for myself.

I worked for 10 years for the Texas Company [Texaco]as a machinist, but I got tired of working for someone else. I've always felt that if you work hard and do good, you should make yourself more money than somebody's willing to pay you.

Do you still stay involved in Earls?

I'm actually chairman of the board at Earls Restaurants. I attend most of the financial meetings and that sort of thing, but the day-to-day business is pretty much left to the boys. You can only have one boss when you're running a business.

At the board meetings, I get in my two bits' worth. When I'm home, I go in the office every day around 10 and I spend a couple of hours harassing the staff but I don't know if I get anything accomplished. Still, I pretty much know exactly what's happening and where the boys are planning on going, but I'm not involved in doing it.

Do you ever say, 'No, that's not a good idea'?

Yes, I have - and I still do.

Leroy (Bus) Earl Fuller

Title: Chairman and founder, Earls Restaurants Ltd., Vancouver

Born: Cincinnati, Dec. 20, 1928

Education: High school

Career highlights

-1954: Opens first restaurant, Green and White Drive-in, Sunburst, Mont.

-Late 1950s: Comes north to develop A&W restaurants in Edmonton

-1960s-70s: Becomes part of company called Controlled Foods, partnering with Ontario restaurant tycoon Ken Fowler

-1982: First Earls opens in Edmonton

-Mid-1980s: Controlled Foods divested. Mr. Fuller forms SIR Corp., which develops Jack Astor's and Alice Fazooli's, among others.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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