Sunday, April 26, 2015 | 10:54 p.m.
Ryan Smolkin’s Smoke’s Poutinerie
Over the years in my food travels around the world, I’ve eaten many strange things, from alligator in Louisiana to sake-soaked snake in Thailand and badly smelling durian in Malaysia to seafood bugs in Australia. Even my old home country features toad in the hole (sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter) and spotted dick (a cylindrical steamed suet sponge pudding with raisins and custard) on our British menus.
Now comes food from Canada that sounds unique and unappealing, so much so that they’re changing its name from poutine to the more digestible “loaded fries.”
Poutine is a Quebec–born mix of fries and cheese curds covered in gravy. There are 30 varieties of poutine, including a chili cheesesteak poutine with flat-iron steak, homemade chili-and-cheese sauce, or a double-pork poutine with chipotle pulled pork and double-smoked bacon and covered in gravy. There also are vegetarian options.
Poutine is available in Las Vegas (from Public House in the Venetian to Haute Doggery in the Linq Promenade), but it’s coming to Las Vegas in a big way.
Rob and Natalie Buckel are owners of the Smoke’s Poutinerie Pawn Plaza location and are longtime locals. Rob is a military veteran and a cancer survivor, and Natalie grew up a few blocks from the Strip. They are one of the first three tenants of the new Pawn Plaza.
Ryan Smolkin started his Smoke’s Poutinerie restaurant empire about five years ago and already has 100 locations across Canada, with plans to open 35 more by September. His global domination strategy involves opening 1,300 locations worldwide by 2020 starting with 800 locations in the United States.
His food sales have exploded in the land of our friendly northern border neighbors so much so that McDonald’s and Burger King have added their version of poutine to their menus.
As Las Vegas gets ready to welcome its first Smoke’s Poutinerie at Pawn Plaza, steps away from our reality-TV “Pawn Stars” headquarters at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, I talked at length with Ryan:
Your restaurant project is 5 1/2 years old, and now you’re taking on the toughest, most competitive restaurant city in the country with the help of the “Pawn Stars” — 100 venues already and another 35 under construction?
Yes, global domination from Day 1, baby, that’s what it’s all about. Just over five short years, we’re touching 100 units now coast-to-coast and Canada, so why not go South of the Border, take over the States and then the world? We thought we’d start down the West Coast. We opened in Berkeley, then one for Southern California, with developers and franchisees.
Now it’s the same for Nevada. We’ve got a great group in Nevada, so the first one opens early summer right alongside the “Pawn Stars” in Pawn Plaza. If Las Vegas is the city of sin, why not give it some sinful food like poutine?
What’s the secret for this remarkable success of your fries, cheese and gravy with such a funny, awkward name?
When we’re coming to America or going international, we just refer to them as loaded fries. Whatever you can think of, we load on top of the fries. Anybody could actually do it, but if you dig deep, it’s all about the brand, the experience, the entertainment.
We’re an entertainment company about our Canadian and ’80s rock that we’ve got going. Smoke is the man, the myth, the legend, with his face plastered all over the place. He’s the reason for the success.
He foresaw everything that has happened, communicated it to me and told me what is going to happen. He feeds me all the ideas and all those dreams to take this concept and love of cheese to the rest of the world. He’s the man, but he’s a recluse.
He’s a shy guy, he doesn’t come out much, but he needs somebody to execute his dreams to the world, so he chose me. He speaks to me only, but he does answer questions right away, and I do go back-and-forth with him frequently. Smoke and I have a good relationship, and he may make an appearance in Las Vegas. You see Elvis every time you’re there, so now you might also see Smoke.
Ryan, being honest, your last name is very similar to his first name. Are the two of you much alike?
Just pure coincidence; it’s a lot of fun. That’s our brand. I owned a branding-and-design company for 11 years before this, and I always say if I didn’t have that experience, this would have been a flop. It would have just been us pumping out fries, cheese and gravy. We call it cheese curd, but in the U.S., we say cheese because you guys get a little grimace on the face when we say curd.
So it’s fries, cheese and gravy — that’s what poutine is, but anybody can do that, anybody can load stuff on top of that. It’s the branding, it’s the experience, it’s the entertainment we put behind it; that’s been the reason for our success.
Poutine originated in Quebec in 1956 as a side dish. I’m going to take poutine to the rest of the world, and I’m going to make it in its own food category. We created this whole food category; loading on top of that traditional base of the fries, cheese curd and gravy, so it’s way beyond your traditional poutine.
That’s why a lot of them call it Poutinerie. Anything that we put on top; eggs Benedict poutine with hollandaise sauce and poached eggs on top of fries, curd and gravy. We have our slaughter head poutine with six types of meats, so if you think it, we can put it on top.
The bacon cheeseburger poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.
The nacho grande poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.
The triple pork poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.
What do you say to people who say it sounds disgusting?
It only sounds disgusting if you haven’t tried it, but it will become addictive. We are proud that we have been clogging arteries since 2009. But if you’re on a diet, we have a new diet version, and everyone gets excited. It’s half the calories, share it with a friend; we’ll give you a second fork for free. We just say it like it is, and we have fun with it, and we don’t pretend we’re anything we’re not.
It is top-quality ingredients. I have my own field now that I grow in Prince Edward Island with hand-selected custom crops of potatoes; top-quality cheese curds; top-quality sauces and gravies; and all of our toppings are high-end quality, especially our proteins. We provide great product, a proven concept that’s proven results now, too; that’s why we’re exploding.
Five years ago, it was a sales process, we were trying to sell an idea, a concept that didn’t exist before. Right now it’s proven. The brand is insane, the brand equity, the brand recognition is something that takes companies two or three decades to build.
It’s been an explosion, and we haven’t even lit the wick of the dynamite, baby. It’s going to explode more, you wait and see the next five years. It will be insanity — global domination!
You’re using food that looks a mess to take over from McDonald’s and Burger King?
We’ll crush them all. Speaking of McDonald’s and Burger King, all those big boys now in Canada are all on the poutine bandwagon. McDonald’s launched their poutine maybe a year ago, and a year before that, we had A&W, Burger King, Harvey’s, all the big players were featuring poutine.
McDonald’s is spending tens of millions of dollars to promote poutine, and you couldn’t believe how excited I was about that. They’re spending tens of millions to make a product mainstream that I own the whole food category. It’s awesome; I love it.
How did you meet Rob and Natalie Buckel for the debut Las Vegas restaurant?
At the Multi Unit Franchise Convention show that’s in Las Vegas. We’ve done that for a couple of years now. It’s not your traditional franchise show where people are coming to look for franchises. This one is hosted by franchisees and multi-unit franchisees.
The first time they came by, their eyes lit up; they got it. We’re a rock and roll show. We build a whole stage, we are a rock show, we have our ’80s rock players in the background. I’ve got my Canadian rabbit fur plaid hat on, my aviator glasses, I’ve got a scarf around my neck, and it’s air guitar the entire time. It is the brand and experience and what we’re all about, and they got it.
They know it’s more than the fries, cheese and gravy. It’s the people who are driven by the brand and concept, then they figure it can actually make them money, too, at the same time as this concept doesn’t even exist in the world; the product doesn’t even exist. They are a perfect fit: Young, driven and energetic. They have three Jimmy John’s; they know the franchise world and how it works. They know how to run the show.
You describe it as an entertainment company, but is there physically entertainment in the restaurants?
The way you serve, the way you talk to people, the way you answer the phone is entertainment. If somebody asks what’s on your country-style poutine, they’re going to say, “Oh, it’s chicken, bacon, onions, mushrooms,” or they can say, “It’s double-smoked bacon, grilled chicken, caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms all on top of our fries, cheese curd and gravy. It’s huge, it’s gargantuan, and wait until you try it.”
It’s entertainment, it’s more than just a product, it’s more than fries, cheese and gravy. It’s our ’80s rock players in the background every time you walk in our store. You’re going to get “Nothing But a Good Time” by Poison, “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue, “Crazy Nights” by KISS. That’s what it’s all about.
Why did the Buckels and you pick the “Pawn Stars” Plaza?
Oh, man, there’s not a better fit in the world. I love those guys, their brand. Think of what they’ve built from nothing. The World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. That so reminded me of my brand. We have the World Poutine Eating Championships that we host; it’s always bigger than life.
It’s nice to have our brand beside their brand, and it’s an unbelievable opportunity let alone the obvious traffic count that they get there. The traffic count that they get through their shop is unbelievable.
You can’t ask for something better when our main goal, especially in a new market, is going to be trial and sampling. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who are waiting in line, and now they can have some entertainment and food at Pawn Plaza as they wait.
Be honest with me. The first time somebody hears the word “poutine,” which is an oddball word to start with, and then they hear that you’re pouring cheese and gravy on top of fries, is there a “what the heck are you doing to my potatoes” reaction?
It depends how you see it or how you look at it. That’s why we totally have simplified it as “loaded fries” because, look around you, loaded fries are everywhere. I mean there’s garlic cheese fries, there are Coney fries, there are Disco fries. The whole West Coast, you’ve got Apollo fries, the Mexican joints have basically 50 burritos on top of fries.
It’s there, but nobody has branded it; nobody has called it anything specific. Nobody has put it altogether in a package. Fries have been a staple for many centuries now, but we’re taking it to the next level, baby!
And obviously you have cut into the Burger King and McDonald’s area of expertise.
That’s what it is. We can pump people through 200 an hour, and our peak time is midnight to 4 a.m. when people have the munchies. It’s definitely stirred the pot up here North of the Border, and it’s going to be doing it South of the Border and international. I see ourselves as that pesky little brother who wants to play with the big boys, poke, poke, poke, until they don’t even know it.
Are you predicting that McDonald’s and Burger King in America will have to make loaded fries at some point to challenge you?
They’re going to have to jump on it, and I feel sorry for them if they don’t because it’s going to be an exploding market. It’s already in the Top 10 trends for the U.S. It’s actually Top Three in trends for the U.K. So we’ve already stirred up an entire continent and looking overseas now.
We’re going to be loading this up global. It’s there, and if they’re too slow to see that and jump on it, they’re in trouble.
So back home in Britain, I’d have to start changing my order from fish and chips to fish and poutine?
That’s right, brother, that’s what it’s all about. Put the fish right on top of it! That’s all it is. You don’t even need fish and chips. It’s fish with the chips right on top with the gravy on top over that.
I guess it all winds up in the stomach that way anyway, doesn’t it?
Dang right! Even when we do the breakfast poutines, we do bacon, eggs and syrup on top, and your first reaction is what? But then you think, “OK, I’ll try it.” It’s basically the same thing as home fries, right? I do poutine for breakfast, lunch and dinner — 100 percent minimum three a day is what we say. I used to be doing five, but I put on a little weight, so I cut back to three. Sometimes I skip one so I can have the dessert version with caramel sauce and apple crumble.
Don’t tell me you put that on top of fries.
Oh, yes, we’ve done it as a limited-time offer. We did the mint ice cream and instead of gravy we did hot fudge sauce with sprinkles on top of fries.
And the reaction was what?
Good God, what the hell is this? I love it; I’m going to eat it! They want to try new stuff. Those are just our limited-time offers. Our core, core product is the one with nice, wholesome bulk ingredients that just naturally fit and make a meal. On limited-time offers, we’ll do anything; it can be very regionalized. The fries, cheese and gravy don’t change; it’s whatever we put on top that can change.
You’re opening in June or midsummer, so you’re almost ready to go? Should Ronald McDonald start shaking in his red boots?
You’ve got it; you understand. You get it, I can already tell. Smoke is talking to you; he’s feeding you ideas into your mind now. You’re visualizing it, feeling the power of poutine!
Yeah, I’ll try it, and I won’t say the word “ay” once.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.