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Restaurants Canada Board Member Roundtable

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As foodservice operations across the country work towards recovery, Restaurants Canada is engaging with the community to ensure that we are representing your interests and needs at every level. As part of our efforts, we want to give our members and our industry insight into the people leading the way in this era of revival.
As the ‘voice of foodservice’, our board is composed of representatives that showcase the variety of establishments present within the Canadian foodservice industry. From smaller independents to nationwide chains, the board pulls from every aspect of our sector to verify that all voices are heard.

In this Board Member Roundtable, we are connecting with three new board members:
Hakan Uluer, Owner of The Bertossi Group, Kelly Higginson, Executive Vice President of Operations for Eastern Canada at The CFW Group, and Brent Todd, Vice President Purchasing & Distribution at A&W.


Read on to learn from these industry pioneers as they discuss the current challenges their operations are facing, what they see for the future of foodservice, and what they’re working to accomplish through their work with Restaurants Canada.

Tell us about yourself, and describe your operations (or restaurant) for us.

Hakan Uluer: I’ve spent the last three decades of my career working in the restaurant and hospitality industry. In 2009, I came to Halifax, Nova Scotia to raise my family and I began working with the Bertossi family, whose award-winning restaurants were founded on traditional recipes from Friuli, Italy, and garnered a reputation for excellence through authentic Italian flavours and culinary delights. Ownership of the company was a natural progression for me, and I continue to collaborate withthe Bertossis to this day. Our Motto continues to be… “We make everything by hand, we care about every detail, we love food with a passion and we serve it with style.”
The Bertossi Group consists of four authentic, Italian inspired restaurants in Halifax: The Bicycle Thief, Ristorante a Mano, La Frasca and il Mercato Trattoria. Known for excellence and exceptional customer service, they have become destinations for both locals and visitors from around the world.

Kelly Higgson: I’ve been in the hospitality industry for over 25 years, it is an integral part of my fabric. The incredibly diverse components
(people, food, wine, marketing, costs, systems) that contribute to success fascinate me continually. The application of them to the principal focus—the guest, is truly magical. The CFW group is an independent restaurant group of eight large-scale higher-end, high-vol-
ume restaurants throughout North America; five are located in Canada and three in the U.S.

The Canadian operations span from Ottawa to Vancouver. The restaurants in the CFW group are:
The Shore Club Ottawa, The Shore Club Toronto, Ki Modern Japanese & Bar in Toronto’s Financial District and Joe Fortes in Vancouver and newly opened in Whistler.
My leadership development is constant and I try to learn something new every day from those around me—those that surround me are
people who are better at their specific jobs than I could ever be! These individual people and their strengths are nothing short of remarkable when working together as a team to create that memorable experience. As a leader, I try to bring Intuition, empathy, passion, vision, integrity and emotional intelligence to my team.

Brent Todd: We’re a quick-service restaurant chain serving iconic menu items including A&W Teen Burgers, handmade onion rings and frosted mugs of A&W Root Beer. I work out of the A&W home office located in North Vancouver, BC. We have just over a thousand A&W restaurants operating from coast to coast across our great country I joined the Purchasing and Distribution team as Manager, Distribution and Equipment Services at A&W in 2005. I was appointed Director, Franchise Sales and Marketing in 2008 and Senior Director,
Facilities and Franchise Sales in 2012. In August 2020 I was appointed Vice President, Purchasing and Distribution. Prior to joining the Franchisor, I spent a decade in various managerial roles with Toronto-based Bachly Construction culminating in the role of Vice President.
I hold a Bachelor of Administrative Studies from York University and an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

What was your first job in food service?

HU: My first job in food service was as a busser with the Sun Hotel Group in Istanbul, in 1987 we were named the best hotel in Istanbul, Turkey!

KH: My first job in food service was as a busser at The Keg in North Vancouver.

BT: My first job in food service was with A&W focused on the franchising of new restaurant opportunities in my home province of Ontario. The very first part of my onboarding at A&W involved completing our six-week new franchisee training program which was a great initial
immersion into the industry for me.

What attracted you to the industry? How long have you been in the industry?

HU: I have been in the hospitality industry for 34 years—I was attracted to the restaurant & hospitality industry as a child, watching my uncle manage hotels. I used to spend days in the lobby enjoying the good food and atmosphere in the hotel. I loved listening to him speak to guests in different languages, and connect with people from all over the world.

KH: What started as a part-time job over 25 years ago quickly became a passionate part of my life. The collaboration and teamwork to create that memorable experience for the guest is what hooked me. All the details and pieces that come together is a magical process.
I was lucky enough as a child to spend a lot of time dining out and these experiences always fascinated me. I was conscious of and really
amazed at how everyone worked together to make a long-lasting impression throughout our dinner. Of course—I cannot leave out the food
and wine!

BT: I’ve been in the industry since I joined A&W 19 years ago. I was attracted to the industry by the incredible people I encountered at A&W and the steadfast commitment to our “Climate” of how we work together that has been such a powerful foundation at A&W for decades.

How has COVID affected your operation(s)?

HU: Operating four restaurants during COVID really taught us how to operate on a tighter budget, while still trying to find creative ways to maximize the experience for our guests.

KH: First and foremost, the detrimental impact this has had on our people is unprecedented. To have our operations come to a full stop, and for our staff to have their livelihoods come to a full stop, was emotionally jarring for everyone. Owners, operators and hospitality employees have paid an enormous price in this battle that has impacted their livelihoods, future fiscal security and the subsequent stability of the entire industry.

BT: Along with all of our fellow restaurant operators, A&W went through an incredible amount of flux and challenges as COVID emerged and then ebbed and flowed over the last 18 months. We are almost entirely a franchised organization and our focus from the start and
throughout has been on the safety of our people and our guests. Its been an incredibly challenging journey as we worked hard to support our franchise operators to be there for our guests providing a meal and some moments of comfort amid the COVID storm.

What have you learned from this past year and a half?

HU: The past year has really reinforced how important the people in the industry are. From the people you work with, to the guests who join us each day, people are our greatest asset.

KH: Investing in our employees is the most important investment we can make. The significance of our teams and the impact each and every one of them have on our operations is invaluable. Ensuring we maintain flexibility and remain adaptable to change. Last, but never the least, remembering to laugh.

BT: Embracing the situation that exists and accepting that the solutions needed maybe counter to everything you’ve known and experienced before.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing operators right now?

HU: COVID has been tough for every industry, but, for restaurants, in particular, we are facing a major labour shortage.

KH: Instability. The uncertainty of not knowing what is going to be thrown at us around the corner. The industry is seeing a huge rebound but the underlying labour challenges, supply chain issues and concerns about “what’s next” weigh heavily on business operators.

BT: As we hopefully begin to emerge from the pandemic, we’re hearing and seeing more signs of staffing shortages throughout the industry and in supply chains.

From your point of view, what does the industry need right now from the government to survive and thrive?

HU: We need the government to recognize the challenges that we face—the restaurant & hospitality industry is one of the largest
employment industries in Canada. As operators, we would love to see the government provide more incentives and support to students who want to study hospitality and culinary education, and also make the process more streamlined for international talent looking to relocate to Canada to work in our industry.

KH: The subsidies provided primarily by the federal government were significant and definitely a lifeline for the industry. As we head into the 19th month of this pandemic, we need to have long-term commitments from both levels of government. Our business plans have been
operating on a week to week, month to month basis which is just not sustainable. Short term subsidy extensions and not enough long-term planning and discussion with all levels of government is making it very difficult for the industry to go from survival to thriving.

BT: Strong, cohesive leadership for Canadians to quell the pandemic and support for restaurant operators most heavily impacted by it.

Why did you decide to join Restaurants Canada? What made you decide to become a board member?

HU: Being a part of Restaurants Canada represents an incredible opportunity to have our voices heard by the National Board of Directors,
government officials and other major players within the industry. I am looking forward to the opportunity to collaborate with other members from across the country, and to share what makes the restaurant industry in Nova Scotia so special as well!

KH: To contribute to an industry that has given me so much. As a woman in a senior position, I am driven to see more diversity and opportunities therein. As an employer I want to ensure our industry continues to attract the next generation of leaders, and that we are considered a viable and attractive career option.

BT: A&W has been a long-standing contributor to Restaurants Canada as one of the very important ways in which we’re able to contribute to and give back to the Canadian restaurant industry. I was honoured to have the opportunity to personally contribute in any way I could.

What is one of the issues you want to tackle with Restaurants Canada as part of the board?

HU: I am eager to work with the other members of Restaurants Canada to tackle the labour shortage in the restaurant industry.

KH: Diversity in leadership positions of the hospitality industry.

BT: Helping the industry to move from ‘surviving’ to ‘thriving’.

What are some of your favourite local restaurants?

HU: Although I might be biased, I spend every night of the week in one of our four restaurants —I truly love the food, the atmosphere and the people!

KH: That is a very difficult question in a city like Toronto with such an incredible food scene. La Palma, Giulietta, La Paradis, Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine, Cafe Boulud, Greta Solomon, and Owen Sound’s Casero Kitchen Table would be a start. So many incredible places to enjoy!

BT: Many around Vancouver including Yuwa, Vancouver Fish Company, Sandbar and of course A&W!

If you could sum up 2021 in one word, so far – what would that be?

HU: Opportunities
KH: Surreal
BT: Resilience


If you had to name the intention, objective, or goal you have for 2022 (or what you anticipate for 2022), what would that be?

HU: In 2022, I am looking forward to another year of continuous improvement! I am excited to be able to continue to invest in the people and community, so that together we can continue to showcase the very best this industry has to offer.

KH: Expect the unexpected, maintain your creativity and adaptability. Remember to laugh and enjoy the people you surround yourself with. Never let the challenge extinguish your passion.

BT: Returning to spending more time in-person building relationships with our franchisees, colleagues, supplier partners and other important partners around A&W.

NEXT ISSUES ROUNDTABLE:

TINA CHIU
Mandarin Restaurant Franchise Corporation, Brampton, ON


LESLIE ECHINO
Annabelle’s Kitchen, Calgary, AB

GENE CORMIER
Hub City Social; Restaurant Clos Inc.; Halo Donuts Inc.:, Moncton, NB

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