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Gratitude toward one’s staff, dedication to high service standards and an appreciation for great-tasting food: these are all values that might be expected from the top guns at one of the country’s biggest homegrown food chains. What makes Warren Erhart, president and CEO of White Spot Ltd., different, however, is that it’s not just lip service: he truly believes they’re the reason for the 18 successful years he’s led the company.
“If you grew up with the brand,” he begins, “you know what we’re about: a family-casual restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.” As he continues, it’s apparent that Erhart feels personally responsible for the company Nat Bailey started 84 years ago – and that he really, really loves his job. It’s not unusual for him to refer to the restaurants as “this wonderful thing we call White Spot,” or recount how lucky he feels at having found his calling in life early. “Thirty per cent of Canadians have at one time worked in a restaurant,” he explains. “I think that you find early on that it’s something you have a passion for, and it drives you.”
True to his word, Erhart has been on the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) board of directors since 2002, and was its chair in 2011. Peter Toigo, managing director at Shato Holdings Ltd. (which owns White Spot) calls him “team orientated, yet hands-on” and “people focused,” and comments that Erhart is “a lot of fun and non-threatening, but manages to get the best out of people.”
Since Erhart joined the company, White Spot started offering Red Seal apprenticeship and certification to its chefs, through a 1,500-square-foot culinary training centre at its Vancouver headquarters. “We’re investing in and developing our people,” says Erhart, “which is important both for our guests and for our staff. It’s an example of us evolving where we came from.”
Mark von Schellwitz, western Canada vice-president of the CRFA, says people like Erhart demonstrate the power of the food industry, both locally and on a larger level. “Warren has spent considerable time and energy trying to convince public-policy makers of the importance of the foodservices industry as a key contributor to the province’s success,” he says.
Throughout his career, evolution and learning have been key to Erhart’s business philosophy. One of his mentors, Shato CEO Lawrence Bell, once told him, “The two attributes of any successful company are a sense of urgency, and continuous improvement,” recalls Erhart. “I do often feel responsibility for this B.C. institution,” he continues, “but I also remember that past success doesn’t determine future success. Just look at Eaton’s and Woodward’s – all of a sudden, they’re not there anymore and you think, ‘What happened?’ It’s a warning that you can never rest.”
Sticking to core business values has meant measured, steady growth. In 1996, Erhart and Toigo saw an opportunity to further develop the Triple O’s quick-serve burger concept; today, it competes with the likes of Burger King, A&W and McDonald’s. When the proliferation of chains like Starbucks meant that White Spot was no longer the first place that came to mind for catching up with friends, Erhart reacted accordingly. “What challenges Warren the most in his professional career is wrestling market share away from competitors,” says Toigo. “White Spot has gone from having it all, to fighting to keep some, to clawing it back. He and the team have done an exceptional job at repositioning White Spot to where we are now seeing some good growth. I think there’s Triple O sauce running through his veins.”
In 2003, White Spot saw a franchise opportunity in Hong Kong. “There are 250,000 people living there that have Canadian passports,” Erhart explains of the decision to bring the Triple O’s brand to Asia. Today there are six Triple O’s stores in Hong Kong, the “vaulting point for the rest of Asia for us,” he confirms. This year has seen two locations open in Singapore, and another in China, with plans to open 15 more in that country within the next four years. “You don’t want to have one orphan restaurant,” says Erhart. “You need to have critical mass, so you can support and market them all better.” And what of the big boom in companies doing business in China? “Sure, there’s cachet today to say you’re in China,” says Erhart, “but rather than look at this big country and put dots all over it, we’re focusing on the Yiwu city.” That’s in Zhejiang province, where White Spot’s franchise partner, Michael Guan, lives. “This isn’t a project that can just be in the corner of someone’s desk,” adds Erhart. “Peter and I go back every year and look at the growth of the brand over there.” Similarly, finding the right franchise partner is crucial: half of its full-service White Spots, and most of its Triple O’s restaurants are franchises.
Erhart plans to expand the White Spot brand nationally too, first within western Canada, including its first restaurants in Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014, then, perhaps eventually, expanding to Ontario. Combined, White Spot and Triple O’s open approximately 10 new restaurants each year (the current total: 131), employ more than 3,500 staff and serve more than 17 million guests annually.
“Of course there are things that concern me, the type of things that keep you up at night – staffing, the economy, the price of real estate in Vancouver,” says Erhart. “But at the end of the day, my folks always said to leave things better than you found them, and be accountable.” His other mantra? “That golden rule stuff,” he says. “Treat people the way you want to be treated – and at the end of the day, that’s what hospitality is all about.”