A chat with Earl's/Joey/Cactus Club patriarch Bus Fuller
While in Vancouver last weekend, soaking up the rain, my dear friends Sam & Sally Yehia took me to an Academy Awards party, a fund-raiser for the Vancouver children's hospital, at the Beach House Restaurant in West Vancouver.
"I've just met Bus Fuller," Sally said.
"You're kidding!" I said. "He's one of my heroes!"
The legendary restauranteur founded three of Western Canada's leading corporate-with-character restaurant chains, Earls, Joey Tomato and the Cactus Club, and it all started in Edmonton.
The family continues to have majority control of all three, with son Stan the CEO of the 60-plus Earls, son Jeff head of the 20-or-so Joeys, an associate running the family-controlled Cactus Clubs, and son Stewart Fuller running his own restaurant brands.
The latest figures on the privately held companies, from about two years ago, cite 100 restaurants in total, gross annual revenues of $450 million and 13,000 employees.
So I had to go over and say hello.
First off, Bus is the youngest looking 82-year-old you'll ever meet - his hair is a mane (like former chief justice Al Wachowich, he likes it longish) and with a full beard, he looks a little like Ernest Hemingway in his Cuban days.
He looks, and talks, like he's 30 years younger.
When I told him I was from Edmonton, Bus was down the reminiscence trail.
It was in the late '50s he moved from Montana to Edmonton when the opportunity came up to buy an A&W franchise, which became many A&W franchises, which branched into the Fullers family restaurant group, which eventually all got bought by Gerry Inglis' chain-restaurant group.
"When I sold Controlled Foods, I wanted to get back to beer and burgers," says Bus. "So we opened that first Earl's - with the big parrots on Jasper Avenue and that's what it was - beer and burgers."
To keep one step ahead of the competition, Bus liked to be a few steps ahead in the food. Hence Earl's become more and more of a full-service restaurant, and, in the process, defining the working model that is Moxie's, Milestone and all the rest of Canada's big, trendy, chain restaurants. Heck, they all seem to copy the Earl's restaurant menu, item by item!
I'm not sure when the Fuller clan pulled up roots and moved to Vancouver, but it happened.
Bus still gets back to Edmonton a few times a year both on business and to catch up with old pals like Cam Allard and the other long-time partners in the older Earls that are still friends.
"I don't know how it keeps happening," he says. "With the boys, we kept opening restaurants to be beer and burger places, and they all keep growing into something fancier."
Joey Tomato was started as a basic Italian concept. Then it evolved into Joey Tomato's Mediterranean Grill, and finally, now to simply Joey (name of location), serving food strikingly similar to Earl's.
"We started Cactus Club to offer the beer and burgers we weren't offering at Earls and Joey," chuckles Bus. "I don't know how it happened, but now they're selling the same stuff!!!"
"I don't do much now," he says. "The boys basically run the thing. I keep saying more beers and burgers, and they keep ignoring me!"
By the way, Bus mentioned the venerable Earl's Tin Palace on Jasper, probably the longest-running Earl's in any one location, will be renovated from ceiling to floor this year.
Good. The patio is still the best (off-river) in the city, but the interior had been getting long in the tooth.