Lessons Earned: Take big risks to reap big reward

Every industry faces its own challenges, and the pub industry is no different.

Deriving its name from an old English unit of volume for selling beer, The Firkin Group of Pubs has been delivering an authentic British pub experience to customers for over three decades. What began as one pub in Toronto as the brainchild of two restaurateurs from South Africa has flourished into a thriving North American franchise. And Larry Isaacs, Director of Marketing, credits their steadfast commitment to their core values for that business growth and endurance for so many years. “We always stayed true to our brand throughout our renovations and rejuvenations over the years,” he emphasizes. “We’ve tried to maintain our brand integrity by always living in our sector (the pub environment), which kept us in the niche market we’ve been in for the last 30 years.”

Expanding across the border

One of the company’s crowning successes has been their breakthrough into the US market. In the last few years, The Firkin Group has stretched beyond its geographical market of Ontario and ventured into the United States to open a number of locations in airports – and are the only Canadian restaurant brand to do so. Larry credits dogged determination and hard work for making that happen. “It was a result of pure grit and grassroots work,” says Larry. “I spent a decade on the ground going to all the meetings and convincing the airport world that we have a unique product that we can bring to them.”

Rebuilding an established brand after two decades

However, their business success hasn’t gone unmet with challenges. Larry recalls a time seven years ago when they undertook a major brand overhaul. “It was a very big challenge when you’ve been doing something for over 20 years to be told that you’ve become old and stale, and you need to not only refresh your brand but basically rebuild what you felt you had already built correctly,” he explains. After an extensive vetting process, they enlisted the help of an advertising agency to conduct a comprehensive market research assessment of their brand to find out what their public thinks and determine where they really stood in the marketplace. 

“That was the biggest decision of our lives at that point in time – to accept the constructive criticism and rebuild all of our stores in a completely different look and feel,” says Larry. 

The company started with revamping one location and then rebuilt all of their locations over a three-year period. “The risk factor was huge because there were a number of variables that factored into us changing what we were doing,” notes Larry. And one of those main factors was women’s perception of the brand. “Women were saying that our brand was very male-oriented, with our pubs seeming more like a man-cave and not feeling welcoming to women,” Larry recalls. They found them too dark and in need of brightening up with more windows, open views and lighter floors, as well as a better wine selection and new cocktail features. In response to this feedback, The Firkin Group went out on a limb and re-built every single store they had. “Making that decision to do such an extensive revamp at such a late stage in our company of 20 years was daunting at the time, but we needed to integrate ourselves into the 2000s,” Larry reiterates. 

Pivoting and rebounding from a potentially costly decision

Reflecting back on his years of experience in the industry, Larry also remembers one challenge they faced over a decade ago that could have been a make or break moment for the company. It happened on the heels of the Ontario government’s smoking bylaw where The Firkin Group had a choice between being a smoking or non-smoking environment. “If we decided to be a smoking environment, we weren’t allowed to have families and children in our premises. And at that time, we determined that our smokers were our patrons and chose to be a smoking establishment,” says Larry. 

However, within only a few months of making that stake in the road, the government ended up outright banning smoking in all enclosed public places. “That was the toughest situation,” remembers Larry. “At the time, we believed we had made the best business decision when faced with that dilemma. However, we went back to those families and apologized and brought them back to all of our stores.”

Finding a partner in CWB Financial Group

For over seven years, The Firkin Group has found a partner in CWB for supporting their growth. “From past experience, I’ve found that banks generally don’t have a clear understanding of the restaurant industry and our vision,” says Larry. “But CWB not only had the vision, but also the knowledge and understanding of the industry, which enabled them to put a financial package together for helping us grow that made sense for both parties.” 

CWB is here to support companies throughout every stage of their business, including their entry into new markets. Speak to a CWB advisor today to see how they can help your business grow.