The Cactus Club Café—a prickly franchise

A B.C. dining empire invades the east with its army of charming waitresses

Desy Cheng

It was spring when the brown paper labelled with the Cactus Club Café logo was first plastered over the inside of a half-block stretch of street-level windows of Toronto’s First Canadian Place. And it won’t come down to reveal the new restaurant behind it until late summer or even the fall of 2014. So any of the thousands of office workers who stroll past Canada’s tallest office tower each weekday and are curious about what the restaurant brand is all about will have to be patient.

Then again, with 25 other Cactus Clubs up and running in B.C. and Alberta, it is not hard to work out what is coming. For, like any other restaurant chain, they keep reissuing the same restaurant concept—albeit larger, glitzier and more expensive each time they take it out of the crate. Toronto will not buck this trend. “Our first location in Toronto will be our flagship for the Ontario market,” Cactus founder and president Richard Jaffray said of his chain’s long-anticipated eastward expansion. “It will have an exciting restaurant design that we are looking forward to showcase.”

If you last visited a Cactus Club a decade ago, when their outlets looked like any other family-restaurant/sports-bar hybrid, and their signature dish was pizza perogies with smoked bacon bits, such a statement from Cactus HQ would seem comical. But over the past five years of its 25-year run, Cactus Club has evolved into something of a juggernaut. And nowadays, when Jaffray utters words like “exciting,” “showcase” and “flagship,” the rest of the industry sits up and pays attention. In their minds’ eye, they envision quality food sold at ridiculously low prices, sleek new restaurants build on budgets unseen this side of Dubai, and hostesses in little black dresses that make Hooter’s girls seem like cashiers at Harvey’s.

In Toronto, sensible executives at locally based mid-range chains are trembling. And many owners of good fine-dining restaurants are shaking their heads. Part of the reason is that, in 2008, Jaffray took the inspired step of hiring Vancouver’s favourite homegrown chef, Rob Feenie. Putting the former maestro of West Coast haute cuisine in charge of menu development at Cactus conferred its food program with instant credibility.

But the much bigger reason is money—specifically, the great stockpots full of crisp big notes that Cactus has been pouring into its newest locations. While the company declines official comments on build costs, industry chatterboxes peg the price of the Cactus flagship in the Bentall 5 Tower on Vancouver’s Burrard Street at somewhere close to $8 million. And, as that 300-odd-seat restaurant proved inadequate to satisfy local demand, the company followed with another exciting-showcase-flagship restaurant just a five-minute walk away in Canada Place, at Coal Harbour—built for a purported $18 million.

“I don’t understand the numbers,” confided one Toronto restaurateur who owns a fine-dining establishment that posts Cactus-like sales numbers (over $12 million a year) with similar food costs (about 25 per cent) but spent only $3.5 million building the place and thus paid off that investment in just a few years. “I don’t understand how you get that sort of financing—or, even if you could, why you would spend it on a restaurant like that. Do you know how many mini-burgers you have to sell to make that kind of money back?”

Even Stan Fuller, CEO of the Vancouver-based 61-restaurant-strong Earls chain, shook his head and admitted to being flummoxed by those numbers. “They don’t make sense to me, either,” he confided. And he is a silent partner in Cactus Club—as well as a rival, whose company spent $7.5 million on its own new King Street West branch in Toronto.

Rent alone for the empty new Cactus space at First Canadian is reliably estimated at $70 per square foot—or about $735,000 per year. And it does not matter much if Cactus really spends double that on its own Toronto restaurant, or just foments rumours of unimaginable profligacy with a view to intimidating the competition. Either way, what’s clear is that the real competition for Cactus is not the upscale independent restaurants from which they casually bleed customers, or the sad and dated East Coast chains such as Pat & Mario’s, the Pickle Barrel and Baton Rouge that they are poised to obliterate. Rather, it’s a pair of others from back home, Earls and Joey—both owned by members of the Fuller family, who co-operate on purchasing power, but little else.

All three chains are really incremental expressions of the same formula, with Cactus aiming at a slightly more demanding consumer. Each recruits the best-looking floor staff it can find—experienced or, preferably, not. They take the time to train them to become competent and friendly waitresses (and, occasionally, waiters). And sometimes—engaging in the most benign form of human trafficking—ship them hither and yon to launch new outlets in their signature style, compensating them with travel costs and hotel rooms. (Some meet people, get hitched and adopt their new locales on a more permanent basis. Of his waitress attrition rate at Earls’ King Street launch, Fuller noted to me, “Your Toronto boys did well.”)

Each chain makes more effort to put a good plate of food in front of their customers than you might reasonably assume at first glance. Earls, for example, bakes its hamburger buns in-house at each restaurant. Joey buys cheese and charcuterie from Toronto’s ne plus ultra Cheese Boutique, pricey cheesemonger to the stars. And Cactus peddles only Ocean Wise-approved fish, while keeping its larders stocked with truffle oil.

Finally, each has a go at punching above its price point in that elusive category of sophistication. For example, customers at Earls on King Street who like their hamburgers accompanied by a $200 bottle of wine (really) are free to request the reserve cellar wine list, listed on an iPad—just as at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-starred Per Se in New York. At Joey, the menu spans sushi, and even a few French terms, such as frites and demi.

But it is at Cactus—where you find the best food—that you are also vulnerable to the most deceitful illusion of all. The idea is that, when you dine there, you are eating true-blue Rob Feenie cuisine, food by an Iron Chef—the real thing, only at a cut-rate price, in a setting you can relate to. They call it “casual fine dining.” No such thing exists. But all the same, in Cactus-saturated Vancouver, I constantly bump into recession-weary chefs and restaurateurs involved in genuine fine dining who perceive Cactus Club as a direct and nefarious threat, responsible not just for drawing old customers away, but prompting those who remain to complain of what they see as elevated prices for product they see as fundamentally interchangeable.

But a closer inspection of even the restaurants at Coal Harbour or English Bay, with their spectacular coastal views, reveals that these places are a very different beast. When I sat at the bar of the Coal Harbour Cactus last summer, it struck me, with its 10,000-sq.-foot-plus scale, less like any restaurant I had ever known and loved than, say, a major airport. And I found it genuinely difficult to convince my jittery subconscious that, at any moment, some unseen PA would not bark out last call for our flight home.

Then there’s the menu, which shares an unintentionally comic flaw with Cactus menus across the chain: the nearly endless string of little “RF” endorsements that accompany Feenie-designed menu items. The initiative must have made good sense when the chef first signed up, but, five years on, with 90 per cent of the menu marked RF-endorsed, the lingering specialties from days of yore appear as if relegated to some culinary quarantine. Go ahead and order the fish tacos, if you must, but understand that chef Feenie wants nothing to do with you!

No fool, I ordered items that were RF-certified. My meal began with a dish that encapsulated the Cactus culinary experience: tuna sushi cones. On the one hand, you get a surprisingly good and affordable ($4.50 each) slice of Feenie’s celebrated culinary sensibilities in the form of quality fresh tuna enhanced with bright pickled ginger, micro cilantro, green onion and ripe avocado. On the other, you get the flavour of food designed by committee. Instead of being small and delicate, the cones had been super-sized for value-seekers and were as unwieldy as ice-cream cones. And, rather than being wrapped in assertively flavoured nori (dried seaweed), they were rolled in innocuous marne nori (rice paper), a sort of Japanese Wonderbread.

Which is all to say, you can make chain-restaurant food as good as you like, but it will always suffer from having being designed to please too many different people, and from its ultimate goal, which is not to dazzle anyone—except for the cautious diner who liked a dish at one place, then had it at another branch five kilometres away, and was appreciative that it tasted the same. If Cactus transports this east intact, it should be enough to topple many a venerable local chain. But good independent restaurants can relax.

Eatery evolution: Like any other chain, Cactus Club keeps reissuing the same concept—albeit glitzier and more expensive each time

Chef-approved: The Cactus Club menu has a comically endless string of little ‘RF’ endorsements that accompany Rob Feenie-designed items

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