Thirty years in the hot potato game
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Aug 15, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Thirty years in the hot potato game

Few people know that New York Fries is a Canadian chain with locations around the world except in the U.S., says founder


You’d think that after three decades, Jay Gould would get sick of being asked: ‘Do you want fries with that?’

But he just answers the oft-repeated question with another question; “Is there anything else?”

Though the focus remains French fries, there’s actually more on the menu today since the founder of New York Fries — a Canadian company — first opened what he calls “a small french fry stand” with his brother Hal in the Scarborough Town Centre 30 years ago on Saturday Aug.16.

“We started out with three sizes of fries and three sizes of pop. That’s it. No gravy, no meat, no bottled juices,” Gould recalls.

“We wanted to do one thing and do it well.”

It was quite a departure from their first venture in the late 70s, when they launched the popular Cultures chain known for its salads, smoothies and quiche as martini lunches fell out of fashion and people were looking to get more fit. They sold the 60-store chain to a Montreal company a decade later.

Their tastes turned to taters in 1983 on a trip to the Big Apple. The Brantford-raised Gould brothers stopped by the South Street Seaport in search of what a New York Times review said were the best French fries out there. They joined the huge lineup in the obscure location awaiting the fresh cut fries with the skins on that were hot and crispy and served in generous portions. They were instantly hooked on New York Fries and acquired the Canadian rights to the company, then eventually bought it.

But when the entrepreneurial brothers decided to launch the French fry chain in Canada in 1984, everyone thought the idea was, well, half-baked. “Lawyers, bankers, accountants all told us why we shouldn’t do it,” says Jay Gould.

“Nobody thought spending $150,000 on a French fry stand (in Scarborough) was such a good idea. They said: ‘Are you out of your mind, selling just one item?’ But it’s no different than an ice cream stand or, say, House of Knives. And we knew we had something good here,” he notes.

He points out that although demand has steadily declined over the years, French fries remain the number one prepared food item purchased outside the home in Canada, though he says New York Fries’ sales don’t reflect the decline. In fact, the last five years has been the chain’s most profitable time “so it’s coming out of someone else’s hide,” he says, referring to the restaurants and fast food chains that allow fries to be substituted for salads.

Gould admits it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When competitors like McDonald’s and Burger King began offering combos about 20 years ago, customers automatically got fries with their burgers “so why would you throw them away.” And they also have had to weather the low-carb diet craze and the general backlash against the greasy fast food industry, he notes.

The avid golfer is no couch potato himself, so he actually doesn’t recommend eating his fries every day, but he has a simple explanation for his company’s success.

“If chocolate cake is your thing and you don’t eat it often, you’re going to get a good slice that is made well and tastes great,” explains Gould.

The company points out in all its signage and advertising that fresh potatoes are hand cut in each location every day. They are also cooked in non-hydrogenated, trans-fat free sunflower oil – which they switched to in 2004. Most fast food chains have also since adopted healthier cooking oils.

And each cup of fries is still cooked right when the customer orders to ensure the freshest product, he notes.

Today, customers can still get the traditional fries and soft drink that put New York Fries on the map in malls and movie theatres across Canada. But the fry maker – which recently underwent a more modern makeover of its logo and old checkerboard packaging -- now offers several types of poutine, from braised beef and buttered chicken to pulled pork and veggie, along with hot dogs.

A new standalone, storefront location on Bloor St. near St. George even offers a breakfast wrap stuffed with eggs, bacon and fries, pastries and has a ‘half-decent’ coffee machine. But Gould says it’s mainly just to serve the next-door Holiday Inn guests and that he isn’t interested in jumping into the fast food breakfast wars across the 144-unit chain, which has expanded into several overseas markets such as Kurdistan, Dubai and Bahrain but still hasn’t ventured into the U.S.

The company is being very strategic to steer clear of the already overcrowded U.S. fast food market, which is littered with Canadian flops, says Monica LaBarge, assistant professor of marketing at Queen’s School of Business.

And the company name – which may be confusing to Canadians about its origin – is a bonus internationally, she says.

“New York Fries plays better than Winnipeg Fries, and it has that (coveted) American connection,” she notes.

The Goulds’ latest food venture is South St. Burger Co., featuring New York Fries of course, which has over 20 stores in Canada and one location in Dubai and is undergoing a major expansion. It’s staying out of the over-saturated burger market in the U.S. also, says Gould.

Toronto Star

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