Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Earls Kitchen & Bar is a well-established premium casual dining concept with more than 60 units throughout Canada. While it has dipped its toes into U.S. waters during the past decade, the 30-year-old privately owned company's presence here to date has been minimal — just 4 units by the end of 2013. That's about to change, however. Earls has kick-started development in key U.S. markets, beginning with Miami, where it will open in February in the newly expanded Dadeland Mall. Boston and Chicago represent the next markets on the docket. Retail development pro Sumeet Mittal joined the company a year ago and is helping lead the charge.
rd+d: You're not only relatively new to Earls, you're new to the restaurant industry. What led you to where you are in your career today?
SM: I have a bachelor's and a master's degree in architecture, and I am a licensed architect. I've worked all over North America, primarily with retail companies. I spent many years with Gap, Inc., and their various brands, including Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy, launching new markets and working with everything from flagship stores to outlet stores. I also worked with Abercrombie & Fitch doing international store development and with Best Buy, where I led a full development team, overseeing everything from procurement of construction materials to contract management to construction, as well as the architectural team. After being in the retail industry for roughly 20 years I'm enjoying the newness of and opportunity to learn from the restaurant business. That's what keeps me excited, learning something new every day. And Earls is in a very exciting stage right now.
rd+d: Are you finding any major differences between retail and restaurant development? What are they doing that restaurants are not?
SM: I see similarities more than differences. When I look at development, I look at it holistically. Obviously, everyone talks from a real estate point of view about location, location, location. That applies whether it's retail or restaurant. Secondly, from a design point of view, it's all about the customer experience whether we're selling food, apparel, electronics or other household goods. Parking, for example, has to be easy and accessible. A strong approach is key. When you walk into the restaurant what do you experience? When you sit down, what do you experience? When you're actually involved in eating the food, how do you feel about the booth you're sitting in — the touch, the feel, the aromas, the lighting? Whether in retail or restaurants it really boils down to the five senses and how you address those five senses for the customer. Most of the time it's subconscious; a customer might think it's just the food but it's not. It's the sum of all of the things that are touching your senses as you're immersed in this experience. I saw that in each of my past roles and now at Earls, seeing how our design team and my team help to bring that together gives me satisfaction at the end of the day.
rd+d: What's the development infrastructure like at Earls? Are most functions handled internally or outsourced?
SM: We have three basic arms to our development team: real estate, design, and construction and facilities, the latter of which I represent. Then we have small in-house teams in each of those areas. We try to stick with our internal team as much as possible, but do outsource when the workload exceeds our capacity or the need otherwise arises. And we routinely outsource to local architects and expediters in new markets as we expand.
rd+d: What do you personally spend most of your time on now?
SM: While our focus is on growth and new locations and new restaurants, my time is split between preparing us for that growth, be it looking for general contractors or other suppliers, finding the right architects, etc., and making sure our internal team is set up to deal with the nuances that come with each of the different areas. We also have a lot of existing restaurants that need to be updated to bring them up to our new standards. In the background you always have the facilities concerns that are ongoing in existing restaurants. So,
between new stores, remodels and facilities work, my team and I keep pretty busy.
rd+d: You mention new standards. Does Earls have a new prototype?
SM: We have defined who we are and what we try to present, which is a very authentic, approachable, premium casual dining experience. It's difficult to say we have a prototype because we customize every restaurant to its location and because we're constantly evolving. Our average unit size runs from 7,500 to 8,500 square feet, but we have some as large as 10,000 square feet. The kitchen is our soul and the focal point of every restaurant — it's open and can be as long as 36 feet. Most units have a glass wall that acts as a splash guard, otherwise it would be a fully open kitchen. Beyond the kitchen, we put equal emphasis on the dining area and the lounge, both contribute equally to the restaurant. Another key space is the patio. So the three major areas are dining room, lounge and patio, with the exposed kitchen being the center stage for each.
rd+d: How about design?
SM: We take advantage of each location to make an interesting and lively yet relaxed environment. Our philosophy is to use the design in such a fashion that it is inspiring but at the same time timeless. We use high-end tiles, authentic woods on the walls and natural stone finishes. We try to go for authenticity and create drama using custom light fixtures. We use a lot of Edison bulbs and create interesting fixtures for those lights. In the furniture, you'll see lots of leather and custom features that help to create drama.
rd+d: How aggressive are Earls' U.S. expansion plans?
SM: We're taking a measured, thoughtful approach. Initially, we plan to develop three to four restaurants a year. If those meet our expectations and aspirations, we may pick up steam from there. We're looking for premium locations and are not necessarily trying to go in to one area and saturate it and move on to the next area. That approach does create its own unique challenges. We've just opened in Miami, which is about as far from Vancouver as you can get and stay in North America. We go next to Boston and then Chicago. We're trying to find the right location, the right deal, the right demographic and customer base where we can really create a buzz.
rd+d: Any particular challenges you're encountering as a Canadian company trying to develop restaurants here?
SM: So far, we have been lucky that we haven't run into anything that we can't surmount. With the sheer size of the U.S. there is a lot more competition here than what we're used to in Alberta or British Columbia or Ontario. That's exciting, as is the number of vendors we can reach out to, be it GCs or lighting suppliers or equipment suppliers. We have a lot more choices and that's refreshing. We hope it helps us to create a better experience at a more reasonable price.