IGNITING NEW ENTERPRISES
|A new business involving a veteran business family is building unique attractions around the region
|Willy Huber describes himself as “the quiet one” of the three-man partnership that owns Ignite Restaurant Group. Then he blows that claim out of the water as he sings the praises of his new company.
“It’s exciting. I’m working in another family business again. It turns my crank. I did it with my brothers; now I get to do it with my sons. It’s exciting times.”
Huber is no stranger to family business. He and his brothers owned and operated the iconic local firm, Piller’s Sausages and Delicatessens, founded in Waterloo in 1957. That business was sold to Premium Brand Holdings in 2011. Willy still serves as CEO.
And the Huber tradition of family business goes back well before the 1950s. In their native Yugoslavia, the family “owned a butcher shop, a hotel, a tavern, a vineyard, a cattle trading business. We’ve completed a full circle,” says Willy.
That “circle” seems complete because the new venture, Ignite Restaurant Group, has elements of all of those businesses. And it’s very ‘family’ – Willy Huber’s business partners are his son, Neil Huber, and his son-in-law (or, “my other son,” according to Willy), Ryan Lloyd-Craig.
“We took a chance on being the first in North America to have visual tables.” - Ryan Lloyd-Craig
Willy Huber says, “All three of us are equal partners.”
That seems to be a bit of an understatement. Because Ignite, only a very few years out of the gate, has already grown to be a major employer and diversified player in the hospitality sector.
Here’s a quick recap: the partners (with another now-departed partner) opened The Berlin restaurant in downtown Kitchener in 2014. But when the partner left, the family partners re-branded the enterprise as The Rich Uncle Tavern, earlier this year.
Also earlier this year – in August, to be precise – Ignite opened the Graffiti Market (complete with a unique pizza restaurant), Red Circle Brewing Co., and Red Circle Coffee Co., all in the Catalyst137 “internet of things” development on Glasgow Street, in Kitchener.
It’s clear that everything at Ignite is in growth mode. Lloyd-Craig says that Ignite currently employs 118 staff, 78 of them at the Graffiti operation at Catalyst137. When the Conestogo destination opens in 2019, that will increase to about 200 employees, he says.
But that’s not the end goal. Willy Huber adds that Ignite has created business models that can be replicated in other places. “The way we’ve built the restaurant group, we could do this in other cities. I’ve been asked to do a brewery and market in Vancouver and Montreal.”
And, says Lloyd-Craig, “We’ve been approached by an entity in the United States to do this on a large scale.”
Neil Huber says that the partners are always open to possibilities. “We try not to say ‘no’ to a lot, we try to weigh options and say, ‘why not?’. There are a lot of opportunities for us. We are perpetually weighing what the opportunities are.”
“We’re pleasantly surprised at how well we’re doing. We’re going to create a lot of jobs.” – Willy Huber
One goal, says Lloyd-Craig, is to build “a larger cidery and a larger brewery,” which will make the cidery/brewery facilities at Catalyst137 and Conestogo “satellite operations.” He adds, “That’s the long-term game. You start small and I can see it growing.”
The three partners may all be closely related, but they bring unique skill sets to the enterprise. Willy Huber knows the food business cold, from long experience with Pillar’s. Lloyd-Craig is a qualified chef, and an experienced food services manager, including five years in management at Wilfrid Laurier University. Neil Huber is a film and television director – he is still a partner in a Toronto film and television company – who brings media and marketing savvy to the business.
But this diversity of expertise doesn’t mean they have closely defined roles in what they term their “collaboration.” In face, Neil says that his brother-in-law hates titles, and would like his business card to simply read “That Guy”.
Change of plans
When they couldn’t close the deal on the building, they looked for alternatives, and Catalyst137 developers Frank Voisin and Curtis McBride invited them to consider the new internet of things facility.
Lloyd-Craig admits, “When we first looked at it we were a little on the fence. It was raining in here! It was just a giant warehouse for rubber tires.”
But like the visionary developers, the Ignite partners saw the potential. And as Lloyd-Craig says, “But what they have managed to do with it! They’ve injected probably close to $60 million to bring this building into a world-class internet of things facility.”
Willy Huber adds, “It’s nothing short of amazing”.
So the pizzeria grew, just a bit, because of its new home. Including the bakery, coffee roaster, brewery, market and restaurant, the Graffiti site now includes about 14,600 square feet, with about 12,000 occupied by the market.
A similar plan is unfolding in the Conestogo location, where the Crowsfoot Market will open on the second floor.
“We try not to say ‘no’ to a lot, we try to weigh options and say, ‘why not?’. There are a lot of opportunities for us.” – Neil Huber
There will be a difference between the two operations. Conestogo will retain a “country” feel, including sales of preserves and other items made by local people, while the Catalyst137 site is bleeding-edge modern, right to the interactive, visual tables – the first of their kind in North America.
Lloyd-Craig explains that it took two years to finalize the contract that brought the visual tables to Graffiti. “We took a chance on being the first in North America to have visual tables.”
The impact on customers has been amazing. Neil Huber says, “Now, everyone puts their cell phones away – the table has brought the family back to dinner. They can take a selfie with the table. Each kid can have a different puzzle, a different game, the parents are enjoying this interactive meal with the family. It’s really bringing the family back, full circle.”
“Full circle” is a popular phrase with the Ignite partners – perhaps because one of their brands is Red Circle Brewery, which they own in partnership with master brewer Brett Croft. Croft is the expert behind the brewery and cidery elements of the ever-expanding Ignite empire.
They believe in partnering – officially, with businesses like Monigram Coffee Roasters, based in Cambridge, who operate the coffee business at Ignite enterprises, or Kitchener business Four All Ice Cream – and also with the communities in which they live and work.
Willy says, “We’ve always done what’s local; we’ve tried to do as much as possible that’s local.”
Lloyd-Craig adds, “We use local beef purveyors, local poultry, local produce as much as we can in season. We change our menus to use more root vegetables, things that hold up throughout the winter. As much as we can for as long as we can, we use local.”
When the partners look toward a future of growth, they realize that much of it will take place right in their existing venues. Neil Huber notes that Catalyst137, which may now house about 500 workers, is set to grow exponentially. “We’re going to have 2,000 people working in this building. They can come here, get what they need, order stuff to take home, have their meal, pick up a six pack of beer, ice cream, a pizza. It’s unique.”
Not all Graffiti customers are in-house at Catalyst137. The site is located beside the Iron Horse trail, and bicyclists can ride up to and part right at the Graffiti patio. The location is a block from the ION LRT. And – an increasing issue in K-W – Catalyst137 has 1,100 free parking spots, says Lloyd-Craig.
Business is booming at the two Ignite sites now open. The conversion of The Berlin into The Rich Uncle has been entirely successful, they say. And, by the way, “The Rich Uncle” is as historic a name as “Berlin” – it was the brand of a cigar made in the same area of King Street in the 1800s.
And at Graffiti, says Lloyd-Craig, “We’re ahead of our first year projection on a weekly basis.” Adds Neil Huber, “The amount of traction we’re getting now is phenomenal. I’m shocked. I knew it was good, but this is really good. People through the door, people enjoying what they’re doing.”
And Willy Huber says, “There’s so much that we’re going to create… it’s going to help the whole community grow. We’re pleasantly surprised at how well we’re doing. We’re going to create a lot of jobs.”
Neil Huber says the secret lies in the uniqueness of the venues. “The whole thing with Ignite Restaurant Group, when we started, was to come up with different venues that are unique. Anybody can be a regular restaurant. We want to be unique.”
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