In 1988, with the financial backing of Bus Fuller (Earls restaurant patriarch), two ex-Earls employees, Scott Morison and Richard Jaffray, opened up a breakfast joint in Vancouver called the Cactus Club Cafe. It didn’t do so well. In fact, four months later they shut the doors, but, Morison and Jaffray were not deterred. They revamped, refocused, dropped the breakfast, turned up the music, and reopened as the Cactus Club. Over the next 18 years, Morison helped grow the business to include 11 more Cactus Clubs before selling his shares and striking out on his own with Browns Socialhouse: a swanky neighbourhood bistro/pub in 3,000 to 3,500 square feet of space. The smaller footprint allows him to set up in centres like Cranbrook, Brandon, Red Deer, and far-flung neighbourhoods like Windermere in cities like Edmonton.
Morison struck gold. In only ten years, 35 Browns Socialhouses are now operating across five provinces and the franchise train shows no signs of slowing down. A dozen more are scheduled to open in 2015. The goal is to have over one hundred Browns established in Canada and the U.S.A. by 2020.
There are scores of restaurants with this style of menu. Think of Earls or the Cactus Club whose influences are undeniable and understandable given Morison’s history and connection; or Moxies, or State and Main, even the Tilted Kilt or Kelsey’s; all the menus have the same categories like appetizers, salads, burgers, flatbreads, and many of them offer the same dishes: calamari, dry ribs, Caesar Salad, a sushi thing here and there, ribs, etc., plus many feature their name on a house beer and wine. But, if you’re thinking to compare them to Earls beyond that, you can’t. Browns Socialhouse doesn’t even come close. The proof is, literally, in the pudding — as in the food.
Browns Socialhouse is a neighbourhood bistro/pub, so about the pub part: this would be a great place to come for a beer and something uncomplicated from the appetizer menu. I will give them a thumbs up for featuring four (out of nine) Canadian white wines on their wine menu. You hardly see that percentage anywhere. Their wines called Social White and Social Red, though, are just Naked Grape under the Social name. House wine doesn’t have to be plonk, but it is here, and, the Caesar I ordered was probably one of the worst in the city: a small glass overloaded with ice and tabasco and garnished with nasty beans. Like I said, great place to come for a beer.
What we ate:
Taco spoiler: Tres Carnales, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
In 2014, the Canadian Franchise Association gave Browns Socialhouse a top award for “new and emerging franchise”. Even though the food won’t make culinary headlines anywhere — at least not in Windermere — Scott Morison is doing something right with his business model, apparently.
“I think we hit the sweet spot in the industry. In Western Canada, it is like a modern-day gold rush to us because there are all these markets that are underserviced – Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Weyburn, Yorkton, Estevan.” (Scott Morison to www.biv.com)
You can listen to my CBC Edmonton AM review here.