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Inside the business of being Earls, where the battle to command the premium-casual restaurant market is fought one exhaustively tweaked dish at a time
The Earls North Vancouver test kitchen is buzzing. Timers ring. Oven doors slam. Restaurant servers working their regular lunch shift jump aside as a stampede of visiting chefs barrels down the narrow dish pass, banging in and out of the walk-in freezer.It’s Tweak Week in December for Earls Restaurants Ltd., the Vancouver-based, family-owned company that operates 65 premium-casual restaurants in Canada and the United States. Thrice annually, the chain’s far-flung operational leaders and regional chefs are summoned home to test, finesse, and ultimately decide which new dishes from the culinary product development department (aka the creatives) will launch on the next seasonal menu. This year, with a new companywide focus on quality (as opposed to value), the pressure is greater than ever. The goal is to get back on top and convince customers that you don’t need a celebrity chef (à la Cactus Club’s Rob Feenie) to create the best-in Earls speak, “soulfully premium”-food. The 14 recipes being reviewed this week have already passed a rigorous tasting panel of corporate executives in November (more on this later), and been reworked by executive chef Alym Hirji to make them more restaurant-friendly. But that doesn’t guarantee the regional chefs (aka, the realists) will give them all the go-ahead. Especially not that mother*@$&! sourdough.Of all artisan breads, sourdough made from scratch is one of the trickiest. The wild-yeast starter has to be fed, nurtured, and tended to like a gurgling baby. The proposed Earls recipe, which requires overnight fermentation and attentive kneading, stretching, folding, and resting, is a two-day process. Though irresistibly chewy and addictively tangy, the sourdough seems awfully ambitious to some.
“How is this going to work?” Phil Gallagher, regional chef for downtown Vancouver, gripes to his colleagues. Sitting around a restaurant table on the first day, after the dishes have all been presented, he lists off the difficulties. They don’t have enough room on the kitchen work line. They don’t have enough labour. They’d have to remove too many other items from the menu to keep their costs in line. Hirji agrees the sourdough could be challenging. If by the end of the week, it’s not fitting the operational equation, it won’t go forward, he assures. But for now, they have to at least try.
In the crowded galley-sized test kitchen, a former dry goods storage closet beside the North Vancouver restaurant’s rear delivery door, several chefs are hunched over a clear plastic container filled with warm water. They stare intently at a wad of dough stuck to the bottom: today’s starter doesn’t want to swim. Chef Reuben Major, director of culinary development and lead sourdough champion, remains optimistic. “Two-and-a-half years ago, we changed our burger buns and started making them from scratch,” he explains, as we talk in the back kitchen hallway, squeezed between stacks of cardboard recycling. “We didn’t think we could do it then, and now we’d never go back. Bread is one of those things that people get really excited about. We have some great bread and we have some average bread. I want us to have the best bread. What could our competitors do? It would take them years to get to the same level.”Almost on cue, whistles and cheers erupt from the test kitchen. “We have a floater!” Ontario’s Scott Rolfson shouts. The third test is a charm for this young culture, which finally deigns to expel a trickle of trapped gas, buoyantly indicating that the dough will rise into fluffy loaves.Earls’ strategic objectives don’t all hang on these fickle strains of lactic acid bacteria. The sourdough is Major’s pet project. If Mo Jessa, recently appointed president of Earls Restaurants (the first non-family member to hold such a senior position) were going to use a food analogy to describe the company’s goals, he’d say the future of Earls is more closely entwined with the green vines on ripe, juicy hothouse tomatoes.Midweek, at a meeting with the regional managers, Jessa tells the story of a premium burger joint he visited in London, England. It was the hottest place in town. The burger was better than any he had ever tasted. But why was it so much better than his own? Earls has a handmade bun and an excellent-quality patty. What was dragging it down, he realized, was the tomato.”We’ve stumbled, especially in the last seven years, on pricing and the food side of things,” says Jessa, a refreshingly candid, 25-year company veteran who started as a junior prep cook. “We somehow accepted that shit romaine lettuce. We said, ‘Well, we’re going to cover the hamburger with the bun and nobody sees it, so what does it matter?’ We were making good money, by the way. And sales were going up like crazy. But we were lying to ourselves about the lettuce and the tomato.” As with a soggy bun, those shortcuts eventually leak to the bottom line. Sales and profits have only softened marginally, but of bigger concern to Jessa? Earls is losing “the perception wars. We’re not seen as innovative.”The search for genuinely profitable burger garnishes starts this afternoon as the chefs conduct a blind tasting of 13 tomatoes. Yesterday it was bacon. There’s also a new leaf lettuce that’s already being tested at select Alberta restaurants. “We want to be that tomato we used to brag about 10 years ago,” says Jessa, rallying the troops.From now on, he continues, “Everything’s going to be elevated. Everything’s going to have a story behind it. And everything’s going to be more meaningful than ever before.”So long as those premium tomatoes pay off. “We’re going to do this in our flagships and see if there’s a return,” says Roy Comesotti, operations leader for B.C. West, adding a dash of reality to the pep talk. “If not, there’s no way from an investment standpoint that the family will put up with it.