Poutine Wars, the extended remix

30 Apr

I promised last week to post some additional material from my “Poutine Wars” story in the current issue of Report on Small Business magazine (a PDF of that story can be accessed here, on page 24). Some of the international angle ended up on the cutting room floor. So, with no further ado, here’s a little bit on poutine’s growth in unexpected places, such as Thailand and Germany, from the original draft:

Poutine's debut in Munich.

Andrew Clark likes to hold court with friends and guests on the rooftop patio of Q Bar. His establishment is one of the more posh hangouts in Bangkok’s trendy Sukhumvit district. With $10 martinis and a host of expensive imported vodkas, only well-to-do Thais, expatriates and visiting foreigners can afford to regularly frequent the place.

Clark, who was born in Montreal and raised in Victoria, moved to Bangkok in 1989 and started an ad agency. The business was successful, which gave him the means to open the high-end bar in 1999. Since then, the Sukhumvit area has come up around him, transforming itself into the city’s nightlife hub.

He speaks in a strange accented English, the sort of unplaceable dialect that belongs only to people who have spent a good portion of their life away from their native land. Still, Clark says he’s steadfastly Canadian. When I visited him last year, he had just conducted a successful experiment in patriotism – he had fed some of his Thai customers poutine.

“When we mentioned it to them, they said, ‘What, Vladimir Putin?’ Or poontang? Then when you explained it, they still said, ‘Ewww, that sounds like a heart attack,’” he says with a laugh.

But, like any self-respecting Canadian, the Thai customers uniformly loved it. Not only has Q Bar since added it as a full-time menu item, Clark’s wife Punchanit also recently opened a café called Munchies in the eastern suburbs of Bangkok that specializes in snack food, particularly poutine.

The future of poutine is promising in Thailand, he says, because the people are now comfortable with Western fast food, yet they still maintain their adventurous palates.

“It’s ultimately easier to convince the Thais than anyone because they eat anything,” he says.

The situation is similar in Germany, where Jochen Esquilant – another expat Montrealer – is working to get poutine off the ground. Last year, Esquilant opened his M Poutinerie restaurant in Munich, which was a hit with customers after overcoming their initial reluctance.

“They had this vision of a yellow McDonald’s fry with a couple slices of cheese melted over it, with some jus poured over it, which is unappealing to anybody,” he says over the phone. “But people who were most opposed to it turned out to be my biggest advertisers because they would literally turn to the person next to them and say, ‘You have to try this.’”

Esquilant has since moved locations and opened Joe & Ben’s, a Canadian-themed restaurant that serves the likes of Nanaimo bars and other Canadiana. He thinks poutine will ultimately be an easy sell to Germans because of their natural affinity for Canada, which includes the country’s cuisine, such that it is.

“If you line up 10 Germans and ask them what’s your dream trip of a lifetime, one guy will say Tahiti and Bora Bora and nine of them will say Canada,” he says. “They have this fascination with wide open spaces. They’re fascinated with this idea that you can drive through the wheat fields for hours and see nothing.”

Of course, for international purveyors of poutine, supply can be a problem – but also potentially an opportunity. Esquilant couldn’t find cheese curds in Munich, so he enlisted his own manufacturer in a nearby village. He says he may soon end up wholesaling curds to friends around Europe who are also interested in selling poutine.

Clark had the same problem in Bangkok. He had to find a local cheese maker to make curds specifically for him. As for the sauce, his poutine is as authentically French-Canadian as possible – he’s importing suitcases full of St. Hubert’s powdered poutine mix.

Poutine’s baby steps in international markets is not lost on St. Hubert’s. The Quebec-based chicken chain has been selling poutine sauce, both in powdered form and in cans, in Canadian grocery stores for almost 30 years. In the past year, it pulled in about $3.4 million in revenue from poutine sauce, a small chunk of the overall $150 million gravy market.

Still, Eric Villaneuve, St. Hubert’s vice-president of sales, grocery and food services, is excited about the sauce’s potential because it is currently experiencing double-digit growth in a market that is flat overall. Selling to more international operators – the chain currently supplies food services in Washington, D.C., Florida and France with poutine gravy – is also a big opportunity.

“People are looking to get a real Quebec gravy mix for their poutine,” he says.

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