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08 November, 2022

Expanding Through Ghost Kitchens with Joelle Parenteau

Joelle Parenteau loves Berlin Doners. So much so, that she had to bring them to her hometown of Ottawa, ON.

On this week's episode, we chatted with Joelle about her plans for Wolf Down and how her business faired through the pandemic.

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Why the Berlin Doner?

Why Berlin Doners? What made you want to open a doner place?

Good question. Like most good stories, it starts with a boy. My now husband is German, so he's the one who's to blame for all this. He's the one who introduced me to the Berlin Doner. The first time he took me to Germany to visit his family. He kept talking about this food that he grew up with and hyped it up so much.

And I must say I didn't take him too seriously at first. I thought it was just—chalked it up to nostalgia. But lo and behold, as soon as we land, he's like—we went straight to a doner shop. He says “You gotta try this.” And I was like, “Okay, let's go.” And had my first bite and was just blown away and I was just like, “Oh my.”

God. Like how, how did I not know about this? So we would—on every trip to Germany we would eat it every single day. And then we would come home and, and be kind of depressed and sad and would crave it so, so badly. To the point where one day it was just like, you know what? That's it. I just have to open my own restaurant cuz no one else is doing it.

I didn't grow up thinking I would be in the restaurant industry, but I just fell in love with this food. I saw an opportunity, I wanted to share it with the world. And so here I am owning a doner shop in Ottawa.

I am kind of a serial entrepreneur. So this was my third business. The first one was in the B2B buying group space. And then I jumped into actually more of like an experiential startup, kind of ended up being in a similar space as Airbnb experiences. And then ultimately now I'm in the food industry.


How long was it between falling in love with doners, and opening Wolf Down?

Oh, it must have been at least a couple of years. When I really start to seriously think at first it was kind of just a joke, like, I'll just open my own. And then I started to seriously think about it, we took one last trip to Germany, to Berlin to kind of do some R&D kind taste it all.

I also had a friend that we had met and made in LA who owns a doner shop so he actually offered to kind of show me the ropes. So did a crash course in LA and then we said, Okay, well let's just start looking for a location and see what we find. And that's when we just got really lucky.

Literally the first day, the real estate agent, the first location they showed me, they're like, “What about this?” And I was like, “Perfect.” And I was like, “Wait, I signed a lease.” And then I was like, “I guess we're doing this.”

So we just jump right in. I’m a true entrepreneur. I just like to dive in and, and figure it out as I go.

I love learning new things, so it's been a wild ride, but that was over three years ago now.


How did you go about bringing doner to Ottawa?

So we thought we couldn't—it didn't make sense to import everything, so we had to try to recreate as best as we could here in Canada. Now, you know that, that the question came up, comes up all the time, “How authentic is it?” And I'm not gonna sit here and pretend it's a hundred percent authentic.

Tell me what that is because every single region in Germany does it with their own twist. Every donor shop has their own twist. So kind of we made our own version inspired by Germany.

I will say that I think that one of the things that makes it special is actually our secret sauce, but that's a recipe that, that is our own that we created.

In terms of the meat itself, what's interesting, especially Ottawa being like a shawarma town, is that. Shawarma, gyro, and doner, they all have similar roots. Even Berlin donor is something that was created in Berlin by Turkish migrants that brought that meat on a rotating skewer to Germany. And then it's in the streets of Berlin that they put it into this PDA flatbread and created the more sandwich version, which is what's really known as the Berlin doner.

But it has similar ancestry and similar roots. So there is that familiarity. 

Every element's done just a little bit differently. So it ends up having a very unique flavour profile. So the sauce is a bit different, the meat seasoning, the bread style. For doner it's all fresh veggies versus like a pickled veggie like you would have in shawarma.

So every element is just a little bit different and altogether it just makes the best sandwich. 



Surviving COVID

What was the biggest challenge?

It's interesting because I think the first year I had no idea what I was doing. None of my team knew. We were all kind of figuring it out on the fly. So that was a steep learning curve. But that was more in normal times. So after about a year, we think we've gotta hang on things and we're doing pretty well.

And then covid hits. It's just messed up everything. So then every week is a new ballgame with Covid. It's hard to even say, I mean if anything I've learned that you just have to be on your toes and continue adapting. There's no smooth sailing right now. Every week it's a different issue or different supply chain issue or staffing issue or whatnot.

So you just need to be flexible. You learn to have thicker skin and roll with the punches and just, try to build some stability. Right now it's a tough industry. So you need to be tougher. So maybe more than anything, that's what I've learned is just to be agile.

Right. So in our case, the one benefit that we had is that we were already doing about 50/50 in terms of in-store dining versus takeout and delivery. So in our case, it just ended up at the beginning being more of a massive shift toward delivery and takeout. But at least that was something we already were familiar with.

So we were able to shift. Fairly easily, relatively easy. My heart really went out to anybody who relies on dine-in. 

We were able to stay open and we were still feeding a ton of people. If anything people were stuck at home, so our delivery business went way up and our focus was on like, no matter what, let's just try to keep feeding people. So we didn't shut down at first and the whole team rallied.

And for a while it was going—we were doing all right. The most difficult part for me was that then when people started to get sick—like one guy would get Covid and the other guy, and then the government would say, “Oh, you're an outbreak site now,” and shut us.

So we—the forced shutdowns and what that would mean for all the staff and sales. And just that, that was the most excruciating part. When like we wanna keep busy, we wanna keep doing this. And the government's like, “No, you're closed, you're done.”

 And then on the flip side of that, the programs that the government put out there were kind of a joke in terms of supporting us.

So that was really hard. But we made a promise to our staff that we would take care of them regardless. So we held up our end of the bargain. But that was, that was very frustrating to just see how it was handled.


What did you expect the government to do to help during the pandemic? 

Right. So I mean, I just think take that at a very high level, if the government mandates you to shut down your business and says you can't operate or puts these rules on it, then I feel like, they have to at least cover our, our, um, fixed expenses, the things like rent and whatnot, that we can't if we're not making money and you're telling us we can't make money. How do you expect me to take care of my people? So I think that that was really unfair and the way they—eventually, they did have a bit of a rent program, but the way they structured it where it had to be your landlord that applied for you out of the goodness of his heart, and they would have to lose out a cut on it as well.

Just the way the programs were structured, just really made no sense. And then the way they structured some of the, programs for employees to be eligible to receive benefits kind of worked as a detriment to us because they kept how much hours they could work. So we literally had staff that were they wanna work, they wanna make money, but they're like, I can only work 15 hours a week or else I lose my CERB money.

So I'd be like need you this shift. Like, I need you to do 20, you always did 25. And they're like, No, I can't. I don't wanna do that extra shift cuz why would I, I'm leaving all this money on the—free money from the government on the table. So it just seemed very poorly structured the way it was done.

And I'm not like—there's a place for it and there was a need for it, but just the way it was rolled out I think could have been done a lot better.


Opening Ghost Kitchens

You’ve expanded to Calgary and Toronto, but with a bit of a twist. Tell me about how that’s going.

Yeah. The twist is the key there. And so for context, the Toronto and Calgary locations are actually ghost delivery, ghost kitchens. And that's something that we've built in partnership with Reef. And Reef is a major brand. They have real estate across North America where they've opened kitchens.

So we work with them almost like a licensing partnership. So they already had the infrastructure and all of this stuff, and we just train their teams on how to make the Wolf Down menu. So that is a much lower capital kind of model to quickly try to test in different markets so that in these circumstances, that was obviously a better strategy for us to start to slowly expand and test the water but to do it with a big established player that already has a footprint there.


What challenges have you experienced with the expansion?

There are two things. One was supply chain. One of our biggest challenges today is we have a very specific type of bread that we need, and it's not something you would readily find. So we're trying to find a bakery that can make it for us. A custom bread while the whole world is short-staffed. So bakeries are—they don't have the capacity to take this on.

Even just finding ways to scale up our supply chain was difficult and continues to be difficult in today's environment.

 That, and then it was just, training the other team on how to do, uphold our standards and our quality.


How do you ensure they are upholding your standards?

A lot of it comes in—it's all about buy-in, right? So the reps that we work with, we only will work with people who really seem to get the brand and who are as excited as we are. So we have been very fortunate to work with colleagues that see the potential in Wolf Down. They love what we're doing, they love the food.

So we just try to make sure that they care as much as we do.


Solving The Short Staffing Problem

A lot of restaurants are dealing with being short-staffed. How are you handling that for Wolf Down?

Yeah. So I mean the reality is that we've spent so long in different quarantines and lockdowns and this kind of stuff, and a lot of the world went to working remote and people get used to those habits and, and now we have to revert back to getting people back out. But I think it really, you changed our whole routines and, now that's hard to break.

The biggest thing that I'm proud of is that at least for all of our full-timers, we made a promise to them at the start of the pandemic that we would keep them employed and make sure that we took care of them. And so all of our core team has stuck with us. So that was a big thing, is maintaining the talent we have.

And then the other key is for us, it's just we pay more than minimum wage, but really what we count on is having a really great work environment. So you talk about culture, but it, it's just the team and the vibe and everybody's friends and we call it the wolf pack.

And we mean that we, we have each other's backs and we want people to feel like they're part and therefore they wanna work with us.


Franchising Is Next

What’s next for Wolf Down?

Yes, the ghost kitchens are very valuable in terms of testing the market and starting to get the brand name out there. Your timing's great actually, cuz we just recently started the process to look at franchising the brand. So exciting stuff.

Thank you. Yeah, there's a lot of work, but it's it makes sense as the natural next step after everything we've learned. It's the right time. And also we get a lot of inbound requests for it. 

So it's also just listening to what people are asking for. We're hoping that by early next year we'll be ready to hit the ground running and start to pick our first—like next cities to start to find the right franchise partners.


Why expand by franchising?

I mean, there are two major reasons I think we wanna do it. So if you wanna open up corporate, locations, you need a lot of capital to do that. So that's the obvious answer that most people give. But for us, it's more about just creating opportunities for people who love the brand and wanna own their own.

And for me, it's more about that. It's more about the buy-in and the partners that you get to build something with. And I've heard—so we have a lot of fans that have asked about franchising and staff as well that say “eventually I would want to own my own.” So franchising is the model that allows for that for you to work with other entrepreneurs and they're building something that they have a piece of.

And I think it's just more meaningful. And it's nice people really care. And for me as an entrepreneur, one of the most motivating things has always been creating opportunities to share with others. So that's really what's behind it for me.

I think like you said like they know their community better than anyone else, and I've lived it firsthand in terms of how at Wolf Down, we are like a little family and our regulars when we see them all the time and how great it's been for us to be part of this community.

And so obviously, we're looking for people who have that same dream and who want to—who love the brand, who love the food. So like, who are passionate about it, like I am and are excited to share that.


The Regulars

Are a lot of your customers regulars?

I would say it's about half. And we see that even—get some of that data off of Square and off of Uber Eats, where they show you how much is repeat customers versus new customers. And what's really cool at Wolf down and part of this is because the nature of the food is it, it is f relatively healthy and it's something that you can eat every day.

Therefore, we do have people that we see every day, whereas, some concepts, they call it a regular if it's someone that comes back once a month, maybe once a week. And we have plenty of those. But we also have people that we see literally every day. 

And obviously, that's a huge part of the business. It's also a very addictive kind of food, so you'll crave it and you'll come back.


How do you get people to come back at that frequency?

I have to be honest with you, we've done very little paid marketing and everything's been pretty much organic. That's another big piece is that not only do we have regulars that come back, but they tell all their friends and that's the biggest thing for us is counting on that.

So the focus is making sure the product is that good, that it speaks for itself.

To all the credit to my team, they build personal relationships with the regulars. It's a fun place to go into and you'll be greeted as such. And the funny thing is, not only does our staff have great rapport with a lot of our regulars, but we also have what we call, we have like our regular Uber drivers that pick up so many deliveries from us that we see them four or five times a night every single night.

So it, it just feels like a family, It feels like a community. And I think that's a huge piece of course.


What advice do you have for people looking to open their own restaurant?

I would say focus and whatever food you're really passionate about, focus on doing that one thing really well. It's a hard enough industry. There are enough moving pieces that don't try to do it all. Focus on your one thing, knock it out of the park, and make the best, whatever that thing is.

Don't try to add a million menu items. I think for me, yeah, focus, and streamlining is the way to go.



Picture of Amin Yazdani
Written By: 

Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.

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