Pierre Marc Tremblay, Innovator and Owner of the Pacini chain of Italian restaurants, got an early start in the food service business. In fact, he was barely out of his teens when he bought his first restaurant at the age of 20 in his hometown of Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
It was the early ‘80s, and Tremblay’s college classes had been cancelled due to a strike. Rather than lounging around during the unexpected break in his studies, the young science student decided to take his first stab at business ownership. With some help from his parents, he bought a small restaurant and went to work. “I purchased the restaurant business for $4,000, and spent $11,000 redoing the concept,” says Tremblay. “Then, two-and-a-half years later, I sold it for $100,000.”
That’s an impressive return on investment for even the most seasoned entrepreneur, yet alone a young neophyte whose only relevant work experience had been waiting tables. It’s also a testament to Tremblay’s hard work ethic and his natural feel for the food service industry. While his parents pitched in with everything from decor to menu design, Tremblay was the mastermind behind the operation, putting in more than 80 hours each week to make his little French restaurant a success.
It would take many more years of dabbling in this and that before Tremblay would return to the restaurant business, this time with Restaurant Pacini Inc., an established chain of Italian restaurants in Quebec. In between, Tremblay tried his hand at the stock market and a few investment projects. He also returned to school to complete his MBA, then worked with a government labour committee tasked with helping underperforming businesses ramp up their productivity. “It was about putting businesses back on track, and I discovered I had quite a talent for this,” says Tremblay.
So much so that in 2000, when Tremblay was called upon to assess Pacini and guide the company in its search for a new president, he was asked to fill the position himself. Tremblay happily obliged. “I was a complete fan of the chain,” he says. “I was living beside a Pacini restaurant at the time, ate there often, and knew everything about it.”
As the company’s new President and CEO, Tremblay soon became aware that many of the brand’s 27 restaurants were underperforming. While they were pulling in $24 million in annual sales, this came to less than $1 million per restaurant, and revenue had been slipping for years. By comparison, an average Pacini restaurant earns well over $2 million in sales today, with some earning over $3 million.
Tremblay set to work transforming the chain into a more profitable business. Key to his strategy was retooling the concept into an upmarket, more authentic Italian eating experience. “When I joined the company, it was a typical low-to-mid-end American-Italian restaurant, and my thought at the time was to change it completely into a mid-to-high-end, more genuine Italian restaurant,” he explains. “I saw a huge opportunity, because there really was no other Italian restaurant franchise operating in that high-end space.”
So began Tremblay’s dogged effort to infuse the Pacini brand with a true sense of la dolce vita. Together with his team, he travelled to Italy to research the local cuisine and introduce new dishes and ingredients to the menu. Heavy, starchy pizzas loaded with every imaginable topping were pushed aside in favour of thin-crusted Roman-style pizzas with arugula, Italian prosciutto, and real mozzarella, among other toppings. Says Tremblay: “What I’ve done since joining the company in 2000 is strengthen the integrity of the menu and its Italian influence.”
Pacini staff began to travel to Italy to learn about Italian food and cooking at the Pacini Culinary Academy – a special training facility set up in 2004 in Basano del Grappa, near Venice. The goal, says Tremblay, was to get every employee to “fall in love with Italy.” The restaurant also started importing key ingredients, and even some of the kitchen equipment made the trip across the Atlantic. The prosciutto slicer, for instance, is an Italian-made hand-cranked slicer rather than the more economical mechanical versions used in most Canadian kitchens. “It’s the little things that make a difference, and it’s been a continuous evolution,” notes Tremblay.
In 2001, Tremblay decided to buy a stake in the company, purchasing 10 per cent of the business. Three years later, he bought out the balance with an $8.5-million loan from its then-owner, which he paid back in another three years. In 2006, the ownership structure changed again when Tremblay brought in a partner, but he retained a majority stake.
It was also in 2006 that the company veered away from its Italian roots: it purchased a Quebec-based vegetarian restaurant chain called Le Commensal. The plan was to expand the chain into new markets, but in 2013, Tremblay sold off the company and its ancillary retail food business amid flagging sales and restaurant closures. Around the same time, he relinquished his presidency to Nathalie Lehoux at Pacini to focus on the creative side of the business. “It was difficult to make the change, but it was by far the most profitable decision for the company,” says Tremblay, who now holds the title of Owner and Innovator. “I see myself as an artist, a visionary, and I want to focus on the creative.”
Tremblay’s inventive streak is reflected in the Pacini brand in multifold ways, from its signature all-you-can-eat bread bar – where guests can grill their own bread and choose from a myriad of toppings – to its fun and lively Piazza Mercato, a retail corner where customers can purchase gourmet goods and sip on a Prosecco or espresso while waiting for their table. The restaurant also embraces healthy eating – it has its own dietician – and was one of the first Canadian franchised restaurant chains to completely eliminate artificial trans-fat from its menu. It trimmed the salt in its dishes by about a tonne a year, and is now targeting food waste by providing guests with recyclable bags to take home leftovers, among other things.
The concept has been a winning formula in Quebec, and Pacini is now expanding its unique casual dining model to the rest of Canada. It already has two restaurants in Alberta – one in Calgary and one in Banff, with one more to come in Calgary in the fall – and will open its first Ontario location in Mississauga early next year, bringing its total to 32 restaurants across the country.
Most of the newer Pacini openings are strategically located alongside hotels, which provide a built-in customer base, while simultaneously allowing the restaurant to draw from locals. “Lehoux’s development goal is to open another 200 restaurants across North America over the next 10 years, and we are working with many of the big hotel chains like Marriott, Best Western, and Holiday Inn in order to develop this,” says Tremblay, adding that in those locations the restaurants are owned by the hotels.
As the Pacini brand’s resident innovator, Tremblay’s work is far from over. He remains focused on growing the restaurant in new and novel ways, and his love for Italy is as strong as ever, as is the enjoyment he gets from bringing a slice of the sunny peninsula and its tasty fare to the shores of Canada. “When I joined Pacini, I had a vision, and in 15 years, this vision has never changed,” says Tremblay. “I want to bring what I love about Italy to Canadians and Americans. That remains my goal.”
We can all say Cin Cin to that.