St. Hubert: Beyond chicken and poutine

Extrait de: St. Hubert: Beyond chicken and poutine, Nicolas Van Praet, Octobre 28, 2011

Laval-based St. Hubert is geographically and demographically expanding. The company opened new outlets in Ontario and New Brunswick recently and is now looking to the U.S. and Asia. It is also serious about attracting younger and multi-ethnic customers. Halal and kosher food may soon be on the menu.

MONTREAL - It pioneered free home-delivery in Canada in the 1950s with its yellow Volkswagen beetles, and is now as iconic within Quebec as Bonhomme Carnaval and the Canadiens.

But the owners and management of Rôtisseries St-Hubert Ltd. don’t believe in the adage “you don’t mess with success.”

If they did, Quebec’s largest homegrown restaurant chain would not be weighing whether to add halal and kosher food to its menu of traditional roasted chicken and ribs.

Even the possibility of such a change might be seen as a betrayal of its French Canadian roots, an unnecessary pandering to Islamic and Jewish patrons at a time when so-called reasonable accommodation of religious minorities remains a simmering issue in the province.

Nor would St-Hubert be expanding outside Quebec again after a failed effort about 25 years ago. The Laval-based company has opened outlets in recent weeks in Rockland, Ont., and Bathurst, N.B., and expects to add a dozen in Eastern Canada within two years.

Going even further afield to Boston and to Asia, which is also in the growth plans, will mean a serious rethinking of the private company’s name and logo, not to mention the size of its kitchen.

St-Hubert doesn’t roll off the tongue easily for the average American. And in Hong Kong, the big chunks of real estate needed to accommodate the average Canadian restaurant don’t exist.

Started by husband and wife Hélene and René Léger in 1951, the franchise-chicken chain is so loved and ubiquitous in its home province that stars such as Vincent Lecavalier and Céline Dion don’t think twice about appearing in its TV commercials, the food is a staple on election campaign buses, its 112 restaurants are community gathering places and its 1960s jingle “put put put” is still recognizable to most Quebecers.

Daniel Cousineau, president of St-Hubert’s restaurant division since February 2010, sees no value in the company resting on its laurels. He was hired to expand and evolve the family business, not to watch it stew in contentment as its Quebec patrons dig into hefty portions of poutine and pie.

Those customers are getting older. Roughly 80 per cent of St-Hubert’s restaurant clients are 40 and over, which means even within provincial limits, the company has a major task ahead to attract younger and more culturally diverse diners.

“I’m 48. I was raised with St-Hubert. My children were not,” Cousineau said. “I think that probably one of our largest challenges is to make sure we can properly manage through the generational transitions that we’re going to see over the next 10, 20 years.”

For many people, St-Hubert is synonymous with affordable comfort food. A chicken dinner for four people with fries, beverages, buns and barbecue sauce costs $27.95. A caesar salad with chicken and mandarins is $9.75.

But the menu is changing. The idea is to use largely the same raw ingredients the chain now uses in its kitchens to cook a more contemporary meal that might appeal to more people.

This week, St-Hubert introduced six new dishes and nixed two: A soup meal and chicken soufflé are in. Chicken pot pie and vol-au-vent puff pastries, both dishes that had been on the menu for 60 years, are out.

There’s a new focus on smaller snack-sized portions to appeal to younger customers. And there is serious thinking about what the chain can do to reach beyond its traditional French-Canadian base. Both halal and kosher chicken and meat is under consideration for St-Hubert restaurants in and outside Quebec, the company said.

“It’s not just about bringing in the younger generation,” Cousineau says. “(It’s about) what else can we do to attract the multi-ethnic customers?”

St-Hubert has an estimated $420 million in restaurant sales a year, serving 35 million meals and generates about $280 million a year from sales of hundreds of different retail products – think powdered sauces and private-label sugar pies for customers such as Cora and IGA. The company has a manufacturing factory in the Laurentians.

Jean-Pierre Léger, the son of the founders, is the sole shareholder after buying out his sister several years ago.

His intention is to keep the company private, Cousineau says, although he would consider selling a minority stake to an outside investor if the company needed to finance an acquisition or an aggressive development strategy. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is one of several funds that have expressed interest in an equity partnership with Léger, Cousineau said.

The last time St-Hubert ventured beyond its borders, the effort largely fell flat. In the 1980s it opened about 20 restaurants simultaneously in Ontario, handing the franchise keys to investors who stepped back and left the daily operations to separate management. That was a mistake Cousineau vows not to repeat. Cara Operations Ltd.’s Swiss Chalet rotisserie chicken chain also did poorly when it attempted to expand from its Ontario stronghold into Quebec. It later retreated.

Is there a wall between the two provinces as far as barbecue chicken is concerned? Does the proprietary dipping sauce of Swiss Chalet in Ontario just not fly in Quebec and vice versa?

Both chains are really family institutions, argues Bill Dover, chairman of food and restaurant consultancy fsStrategy Inc. in Mississauga. “The one people start with seems to be the one they want to stick with.”

That loyalty has generated an enormous amount of emotional capital for St-Hubert in Quebec – to the point where customers forgive the company if their experience at the restaurant isn’t as good as they remember last time, says Jordan LeBel, a restaurant industry specialist at Concordia University who spent eight years consulting for food service companies in the United States.

The real question is whether the chain can re-create that loyalty elsewhere.

“That’s the problem many of these companies are in,” LeBel says. “On the one hand, you need to standardize certain things because that’s how you make money. On the other hand, you need to leave yourself the flexibility to handle different cultural environments with different operating challenges. And I don’t know if St-Hubert is set up to handle that flexibility.”

There is probably no better person than Cousineau to try. Before joining St-Hubert, he led the international wing of Michigan-based Domino’s Pizza Inc., steering a massive expansion that saw it open more than 1,000 restaurants on several continents. As European president for U.S. pizza chain Papa John’s, he also adapted that brand.

Of course, chicken isn’t pizza. And what works for Americans abroad may not work for Quebecers.

But there is no major rotisserie chicken chain that has established itself worldwide, even continentwide, in the way McDonald’s has for hamburgers. Cousineau contends St-Hubert’s formula is exportable.

Confidence in the safety of local food purveyors in China has vanished in the past five years, he says, creating a window of opportunity. The company hosted a group of investors from Shanghai recently at its 60th birthday gala.

“The beauty of being privately owned is the only pressure we get is the one we impose on ourselves,” Cousineau says. “We’re not on a mission to conquer the world. … But I do believe there is a huge opportunity outside Quebec for our product.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 24 edition of the National Post