Joey accelerates North American restaurant expansion

B.C.-based casual dining chain closing in on $300 million in annual revenue

Joey Restaurant Group founder and CEO Jeff Fuller outside of the casual dining chain's newest location | Rob Kruyt

About 28 years after opening its first restaurant in Calgary, Joey Restaurant Group launched its 28th Joey location this month: a striking two-storey restaurant with an unobstructed view of Vancouver’s skyline. 

“Seems like a big number from 25 or so years ago, that’s for sure,” group founder and CEO Jeff Fuller told Business in Vancouver. “It’s been a good ride.” 

The new 9,500-square-foot restaurant – located in the City of North Vancouver’s Shipyards waterfront entertainment area – is the first of four restaurants the casual dining group plans to open this year. 

Joey Shipyards is the group’s fifth Joey Restaurants outlet in Greater Vancouver and its first B.C. opening in a decade – three and a half to four years in the making. It also represents the 41st restaurant for the group, which now employs 5,000 across its Joey Restaurants, Saltlik and Local brands.

In between local launches – the last B.C. opening was in Burnaby in 2010 – the company has been focused on growth opportunities south of the border. Fuller says the group is close to opening locations in Houston, Texas; Manhattan Beach, California; and Aventura, Florida, in 2020. It also has another three to four restaurants in the bullpen for 2021.

Depending on when it launches its next three U.S. locations, Joey Restaurant Group is closing in on $300 million in revenue this year. 

“I have learned a lot on the way,” shared Fuller, who launched Joey Restaurants in 1992 with support from his father, the late restaurateur Bus Fuller, who, along with his son Stan Fuller, founded Earls Restaurants. 

Jeff Fuller’s schooling in the family business started long before that, and the learning, he said, never stops.

“It was kind of neat to be a five-year-old, be able to run behind the counter and pour yourself a pop and sort of see the inner workings of the kitchen,” said Fuller, who spent time working at Earls during his university years.

In an industry that can experience a high level of staff turnover, Fuller said, a people-first approach to company culture has helped Joey Restaurants with retention and engagement – an approach that includes employee training opportunities and an investment trust that has allowed around 100 managers to take an equity stake in a selection of company restaurants for a minimum investment of $25,000.

Trusted talent was critical to the company’s turnaround of several Cucina! Cucina! kitchens acquired 16 years ago from Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc., an investment that served as the foundation of the company’s expansion to the U.S.

“It was a pretty broken company that was shrinking,” said Fuller. “And when you get a shrinking company, I think a lot of the talent flees.” 

Stacking the deck with talented employees has been a key part of the company’s growth.

“We are focused in on the chess game of people,” he said. “It’s allowed me to take some swings, and always having a strong talent pool allows you to take a bit more risk.”

There have been changes and disappointments along the way. Fuller’s original restaurant in Calgary has been closed and moved to a bigger, newer space. When the market lease came around for Joey Restaurants’ location on West Broadway in Vancouver, Fuller said, the rate no longer made sense. 

“It was astronomical,” he said, noting that at 28 years old, the company will have to start navigating 20-to 25-year lease cycles that come due in areas that potentially have dramatically different real estate values than they did decades before.

But overall, the company is growing – and in more ways than one. Recipe books with plastic-covered sheets, for example, have been traded in for iPads that allow recipes to be updated in real time. Joey Shipyards opened with the company’s proprietary pay-at-table technology, created with a local company called Expo. The technology enables quicker customer exits and reduces queues of staff waiting to use a machine.

“Productivity is a big factor, and that’s a big factor in this day and age of pretty high minimum wage.”

Joey has also opened a 4,000-square-foot campus beneath its corporate offices on West Hastings Street, complete with closed office space and open test kitchens. 

“I can literally get on the elevator and go right down to the campus,” said Fuller.

He added that the company was able to strike a favourable deal for the space, which it secured at the same time it was looking to move its head office from Bentall One.

The facility, he said, gets used for training, testing and lots of tasting. 

“The best part is I can go in there when the chefs are cooking and gorge all day long.”