July/August 2018 Leadership Profile

Leadership Profile: David Minnett, Edo Japan

College students are known to enjoy a beer or two, but as a young man, Dave Minnett took his love of a good lager to a whole different level. To help pay for his studies, the Hamilton native spent his summers working as a special events rep for Molson Brewery. Not only did the seasonal job pay for his MBA, it also set Minnett on a path that has seen him working for some of the country’s leading beverage and food service brands, culminating in his current role as CEO and President of Edo Japan Restaurants.

“After I graduated from university, I walked into a [full-time] job with Molson, which seemed the logical thing to do,” says Minnett today. “I was able to work with a leading high-profile company, and this was a great opportunity.” Molson initially hired Minnett as a sales rep, and he spent the next 11 years honing his skills and climbing up the corporate ladder there. By the time he left, he was Vice President of Marketing for what was then Molson Coors.

A number of senior positions at other prominent brands followed, including Mars and CARA, where Minnett was the President of Kelsey’s Restaurants, then Swiss Chalet & Harvey’s. He also worked at Rogers Communications (in marketing) and was the President of Amica Mature Lifestyles Inc., a management company for luxury senior residences.

While Rogers and Amica may seem like detours from his food and beverage roles, Minnett doesn’t see it that way. The common thread, he says, is that the brands he has worked for represent something he strongly believes in, a sine qua non for him.

“In all cases, I had a personal affinity and attachment to the brand,” he says. “When I was a young guy, I enjoyed sports and beer, and Molson was a natural fit for me. Then I went to Rogers because I was interested in BlackBerrys and telecommunications. And before I joined Amica, my father had been in long-term-care, so there was a higher purpose to that which attracted me. I guess the marketer in me always has to believe in the concept, brand or product offered by the company before I can get involved.”

Believing in Edo Japan

Which brings us to Edo Japan, a franchise chain Minnett joined two years ago, and one he feels has tremendous potential – so much so, he invested in the business from the get-go. “I was impressed with the team, Edo’s unit economic model that enables franchisees to make money, as well as the brand’s long-term potential,” says Minnett. “I invested in the business personally to be part of the ownership group, and it has been one of the best decisions I have made in my career.”

Those are powerful words coming from someone with a winning streak managing some of the country’s leading hospitality brands. It also comes as no surprise: Edo Japan’s Teppan-style meals – grilled on the spot on a sizzling 450° F grill – are perfectly aligned with contemporary food tastes. The same can be said for its Bento boxes, fresh sushi, and other offerings. Whether it’s Hawaiian chicken on brown rice, or Sukiyaki beef with vegetables, Edo Japan’s menu provides a tasty counterbalance to your typical greasy-spoon fast food. Edo Japan has been evolving the menu over the past two years, introducing new favourites such as the Noodlefull Bowl and Chop Chop Bowl, adding new flavour profiles to its mix.

Then there’s the brand’s novel history: the first Edo Japan was opened by a Japanese Buddhist minister, Susumu Ikuta, in Calgary in 1979. Ikuta wanted to share his food and culture with Canadians, while giving back to his community and providing immigrants with a business opportunity. While Buddhism and business may seem like a strange pairing, Minnett views the brand’s beginnings through a much rosier lens.

“Not only did Mr. Ikuta have a desire to bring Japanese cuisine and cooking to Canadians, he was also crafting the opportunity for many individuals to own their own business,” he says. “Providing an opportunity to immigrants was important to him, and it manifests itself today in that we celebrate diversity and inclusion and have franchisees of varied ethnic backgrounds.”

Ikuta left the business in 1999 (after being appointed Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of Canada) and its new CEO set to work transforming the once mom-and-pop operation into the large and thriving franchise chain it is today. There are now more than 120 Edo Japan restaurants in Canada, mainly in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and the company is making a strong push into neighbouring Manitoba. It opened its first restaurant in Winnipeg in February, and already has plans for another five locations in the province. Further east, Minnett is looking to expand the brand into Ontario.

Design revamp

Much of this expansion focuses on Edo Japan’s street format concept, i.e. eat-in restaurants with a take-out component. In line with this, the restaurant’s design was recently revamped to keep things current. “We’ve been working on the new design for the last 18 months, inspired by the needs of millennials, who represent one of our most important market segments,” says Minnett. “It’s a fresh, more modern, brighter look that includes some Asian design cues to stay true to our heritage.”

The company made its grill more visible, and introduced a market wall offering a diverse mix of grab-and-go items like sushi and Japanese imports. “This market wall will drive economic benefit for our operators because it represents a new, incremental revenue stream within the same square footage,” says Minnett, who is a firm believer in staying on top of emerging trends and consumer preferences. “If you’re not working on understanding these emerging needs and incubating new ideas to satisfy them, you’re likely falling behind.”

Minnett’s marketing know-how is helping Edo Japan carve out a larger share of the country’s competitive hospitality sector. It’s a challenge Minnett welcomes and enjoys. “I truly love the food service, hospitality business,” he says. “I enjoy working with teams to unlock new ways to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to serve and satisfy their guests. And from a business perspective, I truly love the challenge of discovering new ways to make it more profitable for franchisees to do what they love, each and every day.”

Partnering closely with franchisees is fundamental to Minnett’s winning formula. He points out that they’re the ones in the trenches, interacting with customers on a daily basis. There is much any franchisor can learn from their experience. “Some of our best growth ideas will come from those people who live closest to the guest, specifically our operators,” Minnett explains. “A leader needs to create ways to invite the voice of restaurant operators into the development process of new, profitable initiatives so everyone can prosper and benefit. And the earlier in the process you do it, the better.”

The company’s franchisees come from varied professional backgrounds, but all share some common attributes when it comes to servicing customers. “These people understand what great hospitality means, and what is required on their part to deliver it. They always put their guests first, and they genuinely believe in our food and have a passion for the brand’s promise,” says Minnett. “[They] share some like-minded values and principles, specifically around honesty, integrity, and collaboration.”

New franchisees go through an extensive six-week training program, and have access to a separate on-site training program for their staff, as well as online tools provided on an ongoing basis.

But to be truly successful, Minnett has a few parting words of wisdom that go beyond education: “Success is 90 per cent driven by great execution. It’s driven by a consistent and excellent guest experience, and by living and breathing the brand standards. If you do that each and every day, success will come.”

By Roma Ihnatowycz

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