Drive, work opens doors for hospitality entrepreneur

Profile of Ryan Moreno, CEO, Joseph Richard Group

Ryan Moreno | Photo: Chung Chow

When he was in Grade 5 growing up in Surrey, Ryan Moreno had his heart set on one thing: a Diamondback BMX.

“It was just a badass bike – and it was at the time when every kid wanted a BMX bike,” said Moreno, the CEO and co-founder of Joseph Richard Group, which  ranks 41st on Business in Vancouver’s list of B.C.’s fastest-growing companies. The company includes 13 public houses, four restaurants, three liquor stores, a hotel and Sudo Asian Kitchen, which is set to open this year.

However, even though Moreno, born in 1977, already had a paper route, he couldn’t afford the bike. His parents also had a number of paper routes, getting up early to deliver copies of the Province around the neighbourhood.

“I remember thinking that must suck, getting up so early, even when they had other jobs,” he said.

Then Christmas came, and under the tree was a present for Moreno – a Diamondback BMX. It wasn’t until later that Moreno clued in that his parents had taken on the paper routes to pay for the bike as a present to him.

“The whole reason they got the job was to pay for the bike,” he said. “I remember as a kid, I was so happy to have the bike, but I felt so guilty. I felt so bad all those times seeing my parents leave when it was snowing and raining, and here I was comfy in bed in the morning, and they went and did that.”

The memory stuck with Moreno and lit a fire within him, sparking a drive to work hard like his parents, who supported five kids and sent them to private school while living in one townhouse.

“After that I got a bigger paper route, to try and work and make my own money,” he said. “I never wanted them to pay for the stuff that I wanted. They sacrificed a lot of stuff they could have had.… People always ask me if I have any mentors, and probably like a lot of people, my mom and dad were my mentors.”

Before long, Moreno had three full paper routes and was delivering papers more efficiently than his predecessors. “I was actually able to do three in the time that people were able to do one route.”

He then got a job busing tables at age 14 at the Red Robin in Langley. It was here that Moreno not only did his job but also paid attention to how a restaurant was run. He noted inefficiencies and pinpointed ways the establishment could improve customer service.

“I had a lot of ideas that I saw, things that I would do differently – certain things, whether it was people, culture, service points. So I kind of liked it.”

When he graduated from high school, Moreno was already working full time in the hospitality industry, at Earls as a bartender. At 19 he took a bartending course to upgrade his skills. Also in the class was his childhood friend – and eventual Joseph Richard Group co-founder – André Bourque.

“We were talking about the course for a while,” he said. “And finally one day someone said to us, ‘Why don’t you guys just start your own?’ And we thought, ‘You know what, we should totally do that.’”

Moreno and Bourque did some research and launched Barmasters bartending school in 1998. It was a success, with 20 people signing up for its first iteration at $350 each. Moreno remembers the feeling after the first session ended.

“I thought, ‘We’d just created a business out of nothing.’ We had only been in the industry for a bit, and creating a business felt so daunting, and I thought, ‘Who am I to start this school and teach people how to do stuff?’ But there was definitely a need for it.”

Bourque said the two were surprised by how well the venture did.

“We used Barfly nightclub in New Westminster during the day, when they were closed. By the time we opened our first class, we were so full we had to add a second class.”

While running Barmasters, Moreno and Bourque had developed a taste for entrepreneurship and confidence in their own business instincts. Moreno took his next step at age 22, purchasing a restaurant. His girlfriend’s father at the time owned the Stinking Rose, an Italian restaurant in Burnaby, and was looking to get out of the business. Moreno worked out a deal with him but soon learned a valuable life lesson in the process.

“I didn’t do the research, and I should have,” he said. “So I thought it would be no problem and I signed a personal guarantee.… Little did I know, in 2002, the policy for the liquor laws changed.”

Moreno was unprepared for the long and arduous process required to secure the alcohol licence he needed for the business. His restaurant, which had an entertainment element to it, suffered immensely.

“If we wanted to stay open later, we couldn’t have dancing, and if we wanted to have dancing, we had to close early, and people couldn’t walk around with their drinks. I really got burned with that one – it was really tough. So we had to regroup and change it up. We turned it into a lounge, focusing on sporting events, a sports pub kind of thing.”

This was during the 2003-04 hockey season, and the Canucks were having a great year on the ice. Moreno’s establishment was jam-packed with fans for every game. But then another black swan came swooping down with the National Hockey League players’ strike the next season.

“It just felt like one thing after another,” he said. “I always tell people, looking back I don’t regret it at all, but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was some of the toughest times of my career.”

Looking back on his early failures, Moreno, whose company has 950 employees and generated $45 million in revenue last year, said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“It’s a cool story now,” he said. “What makes the difference between a new entrepreneur and an experienced entrepreneur is you just learn to trust your gut more.”