A new Ontario concept gets in the fast-casual game
By Laura Aiken
Fast-casual Italian fare has a new player in the Ontario market that is
aiming high and bringing a 57-page business plan to back it up.
Fast-casual Italian fare has a new player in the Ontario market that is aiming high and bringing a 57-page business plan to back it up.
|Jason Harris, CEO of Garlic Democracy, with his pride-and-joy oven. |
Meet Jason Harris, a former director of dairy for a grocery chain in the U.S. turned CEO of Garlic Democracy, his fast-casual brainchild with Canadian business partner Veneta Anand. Harris left St. Louis to call Waterloo, Ont., his new home because he had a dream. He is now seeing that dream come to life. His Orillia location of Garlic Democracy opened in early March and the second launched in Stoney Creek shortly thereafter.
Harris was inspired by Chipotle, an American fast-casual chain, and he wanted to bring that style of highly customizable fresh-fare-fast at a good price point to Italian food.
“If I didn’t follow my dreams, I knew I would regret it,” he says of the decision to sell his home, pack his bags and move to a new country in pursuit of pizza.
Here’s how Garlic Democracy works: Customers can choose a pizza, pasta or salad. Each costs $8.99. This is a fixed price point, regardless of how many toppings or what menu options a customer chooses. If ordering a pizza, diners simply choose what type of sauce, proteins and vegetable toppings, and then each pie is finished with their secret and signature garlic sauce. The mechanics are the same for pasta and salad. The restaurant also serves cookies, baked fresh in house. The pizzas and cookies are baked in an Italforni Pesaro Bull stone bake triple-decker oven. Pastas, which come with in-house baked garlic bread, are made to order on induction cooktops. Customers can finish their order themselves using a variety of herbs and spices.
The heart of the concept is all in the name and logo, explains Harris.
“Democracy is part of the name because it is ruled by the people. It’s made to order. You choose and we will change our ingredients to reflect customer feedback.”
The garlic part of the name links to the garlic sauce that accompanies every order. A coliseum in the logo is a symbol for the Italian heritage of the food. A fist in the logo represents big change, which Harris is noticing to be the case. He finds the concept typically needs explaining to customers the first time around, particularly when it comes to the unlimited toppings available for a fixed price point (they all wonder what the catch is). But once they get it, he says, they keep coming back. He is surprised to find seniors the biggest supporting demographic of his Orillia store, where sales are split about 50/50 between pizza and pasta. He sees a different dynamic in Stoney Creek, where sales are 75 per cent pizza and 25 per cent pasta, with a more varied clientele who opt for the fior di latte cheese more often than shredded mozzarella when compared to his Orillia location.
Harris can rhyme off lots of data about his new venture. He is an avid sports fan who’s been marvelling at the Canadian hockey craze and loves the Real Sports Bar & Grill in Toronto, but his penchant for statistics seems to be more rooted in an equally avid tech side to his interests. He offers free WiFi in the restaurants for customers. He chose to live in Waterloo because it is a technology hub and he had his custom-designed, cloud-based computer system created there. He can see everything from the system, from current orders to the security cameras on his trustee iPad in real time, and has found himself in the habit of checking his sales stats for the two stores hourly. His system also helps him closely monitor his labour costs, and his employees clock in and out on an iPad. He knows he is averaging a five- to 10-minute window from the time orders are placed to the moment the customer receives his or her meal. To make his profit margins on $8.99, which is a price point he based on volume sales, he had to make some accommodations. He finds using local produce is saving him a lot of money. He’s busy on social media, putting paid ads on Facebook and racking up over 2,000 likes (as well as addressing customer complaints).
|Customers at Garlic Democracy can choose an unlimited number of toppings for one fixed price of $8.99.|
In preparation for launch, he ran radio and print ads, as well as did some old-fashioned hand delivery, sticking flyers on cars and in the mailboxes of nearby homes. Once he got up and running, it was time to meet his new customers.
One thing that initially surprised him about the Canadian market was the requests for beer or wine. He says that is uncommon in the U.S. fast-casual segment. As the term democracy implies, he is listening to his customers and has investigated obtaining a liquor licence. He also is impressed with what he sees as a great loyalty in Canada to Canadian brands like Tim Hortons and Boston Pizza. This makes him hopeful as a new Canadian company and proud pizzeria owner.
“I’m just a foodie. I love cooking. It’s just who I am,” says Harris, clearly pleased to be standing in his own restaurant. Rather than take that foodie passion in an upmarket direction, he is using his business savvy and corporate experience to build what he hopes is a moneymaking concept that will grow into a large franchise.
Launching a restaurant is enough to keep one’s hands full, even with a great business partner, but Harris is reaching for all his ambitions. He is still working on a doctorate in corporate leadership that he started while living in the U.S., which entails a weekly reading plus papers and homework. It’s worthwhile, he says, as it is helping him better lead his team. He wants to be a boss his staff enjoy working for, and he wants to be able to build a strong team and promote from within. He also is leaning on his experience in procurement and the supply chain in the grocery business and on his previous work managing convenience stores. His whole career has been in retail, so the business of selling a product has been his business all along.
The big change for him is that now it speaks to his passion for Italian food too.