Ryan Smolkin, a former ad agency founder who went on to create Smoke’s Poutinerie, overseeing its emergence into one of the country’s most successful independent QSR brands through an unmatched combination of charm, charisma and chutzpah, has died at the age of 50.
The company announced his death on Monday, saying it was the result of complications stemming from a recent surgery.
Smolkin, who held the title of CEO (chief entertainment officer) at Smoke’s, was not only a savvy businessman and marketer, but a quote machine with a fondness for ’80s hair metal who was capable of going from zero to over-the-top excited at the drop of a hat.
One second he would be talking matter-of-factly about his plans to grow the poutine business, and the next he’d be shouting enthusiastically about “GLOBAL DOMINATION” (one of his favourite refrains) and how there was simply no way of stopping what he liked to call the gravy train.
I interviewed him several times over the years, and on each occasion he provided more colour than one of the spandex-clad metal bands featured in Smoke’s franchisee recruitment video.
In a 2015 story about Smoke’s opening additional stores and expanding into burritos, I noted that Smolkin had a “tendency to abruptly veer from calculated businessman to an excitable TV-like poutine preacher.”
“I don’t pretend I’m the inventor of poutine,” he told me during our first meeting in 2012. “But I’m taking it to the rest of the world.”
The last time I saw Smolkin was at a cocktail party held by Foodservice and Hospitality magazine a few years ago, where he was dressed in his standard outfit: A red and black lumberjack coat, matching trapper hat, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Not surprisingly, he was surrounded by a group of people, his voice—and their laughter—carrying across the room.
“He could energize an entire room,” said Cherryh Cansler, editor of the website FastCasual.com in a story announcing his passing. “He was one-of-a-kind and will be missed.”
But while Smolkin loved to play up his comedic side, he was also highly attuned to the power of brand. It was a skillset he acquired during his days as head of AmoebaCorp, a design and branding agency with clients including YTV, Molson, and MLSE, that was acquired by John St. in 2007.
The combination of Smolkin’s personality and the chain’s distinct identity often brought media coverage for new openings. In our first meetings at the company’s former HQ in downtown Toronto, Smolkin gestured towards a wall covered with dozens of articles about the company. “We think it’s awesome because we’ve spent zero dollars [on advertising],” he said.
Smolkin also created media-friendly events like the annual CEO Challenge, a poutine-eating contest featuring senior leaders from across the foodservice industry. The event, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for We Care, a charity dedicated to enabling kids with disabilities to reach their potential, has been rechristened “The Ryan Smolkin CEO Challenge.”
Right from its 2008 inception, Smolkin placed considerable emphasis on the Smoke’s brand. He insisted that the company wasn’t actually his brainchild, but that of the chain’s namesake mascot, a shadowy figure who, he said, lives deep in the woods near the Quebec-Ontario border, and whose likeness graces the brand’s exterior and interior signage, as well as a line of merchandise.
Smolkin refused to deviate from the script even when pressed about the origin story. “I still follow [Smoke’s] lead,” he told me during our 2015 interview.