Lafleur's 19 hot dog restaurants target blue collar men
Dave Suzuki talked quickly, while wolfing down hot dogs, fries and cola at Restaurant D. Lafleur's Dorval outlet.
"These hot dogs are great. We've got nothing like this in Vancouver," said Suzuki, who was in town for a three-week long business trip. "When I fly into Montreal, I drop by every chance I get."
Montreal has a reputation as one of the few places in the world where steamed hot dogs rule. And while there is a lot of competition among hot dog joints, few have done as well as Lafleurs.
According to Jacques Vinet, the company's vice-president and general manager, much of the chain's success was built on clients like Suzuki.
"Most of our restaurants are located near business districts or industrial parks," Vinet said. "Our clients tend to be men, or families who were brought in because the man wanted to come."
The hot hog format suits Suzuki, who works for Maynards Industries Ltd., a liquidation and auctioneer firm, just fine.
"Hot dog meals seem cheaper than other fast foods, and they go down fast," said Suzuki, a chartered accountant who is accustomed to keeping track of his time. "I also like the fact that they serve cabbage on the hot dogs, which they don't do back home.
Suzuki, who has eaten in "four or five" Lafleur's locations also mentioned the chain's consistent quality as a factor that keeps him coming back.
According to Vinet, the high quality and standards that are
enforced throughout the chain are no accident. And most of those
efforts are centered on the steamed hot dog.
"People think that hot dog's are easy to make and they are," Vinet said. "But to make them taste good all the time is a lot harder."
"You've got to have quality meat, keep them fresh and cook them right. And then you have to that day in day out, year round," Vinet said.
By the looks of it, Lafleur's has been doing a pretty good job.
In the four decades since Vinet's father Denis opened his first hot dog stand on Lafleur Avenue in La Salle, the family business has grown to 19 restaurants, with almost 400 employees, that generate about $18 million in annual revenues.
Denis Vinet, now 75 still comes in to work one day a week, and three of his eight children are active in the business including, Jacques, sister Francine, who works in accounting and Bernard, who handles a variety of duties.
According to Vinet, another of the chain's selling point are its French fries, which are cooked traditional-style.
"We cut the potatoes and boil them in oil, just like you used to do at home before frozen foods came along," Vinet said. "And if they are not eaten within 15 minutes we throw them out."
According to Vinet, the fact that all Lafleurs restaurants are family-owned makes them stand out from competitor chains such as Valentine, which have turned to franchising to spur rapid growth.
"It's a lot easier to keep consistent if you control everything," Vinet said.
Another Lafleur's stand out feature is their store formats, which tend to be larger than average and have spacious parking lots, making it easy to get in and out fast.
And at least two of the chain's outlet's - on Cote-de-Liesse and in Ville St-Pierre are notable for shunning chairs and tables. Clients eat standing up, placing food on small bar-like ledges, which encourages them to eat fast and get moving.
Like most restaurants, Lafleurs needs to stand out, because according to one expert, the industry is becoming increasingly competitive.
"If I was thinking about getting into the restaurant business, I would wait a little bit," said Hans Brouillette, a spokesperson for the Association des Restaurateurs du Quebec. "There has been a serious slowdown since last summer."
Total restaurant sales in Quebec jumped only 2.7% to $6.77 billion during 2003, and revenues in the limited service category, which includes fast food outlets increased only 0.8%. As a result bankruptcies were up last year after a multi year decline.
"Much of the slowness is due to a drop in tourism," Brouillette said. "The fact that (Lafleur's) is focused mostly on the local market means that they were probably less affected."
But arguably the most important Vinet family characteristic is it conservative strategy, which has kept them from betting the bank in an attempt to spike quick growth numbers.
Nevertheless Jacques Vinet has several projects on his plate for the short term. These include redesigning Lafleur's corporate logo and signage, which will be replaced during the coming months, a new mobile trailer/stand concept that will be tested this summer and most important: further expansion.
Twelve of Lafleur's 19 restaurants are located on the island of Montreal, five on the South shore and two on the North shore, leaving a big hole in Laval, that Vinet wants to fill.
"We were negotiating to buy a nice piece of land but the deal fell through," Vinet said. "It all starts with the land. If you don't have that you don't have anything."
Photo caption: According to Jacques Vinet, shown here with customer Dave Suzuki, Restaurant D. Lafleurs' success over the years has been attributable to the firms narrow focus on a hot dogs which are sold mostly to blue collar men.
Chart: Restaurant sales in Quebec ($ billions)
2003 2002 Change
Restaurant bankruptcies 293 249
(Source Statistics Canada, Industry Canada and Association des Restaurateurs du Québec. (hundreds of millions)
|© 2004 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.|