As part of our ongoing "Building Connections" series, I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Wendy Tait, the Managing Director of Design at Earls Restaurants.
Some 30 years ago, Leroy Earl Fuller and his son Stanley Earl Fuller had a simple idea: a laid-back burger & beer joint. When the restaurant started, there was no question about what the name would be. It had to be called Earls. Today, Earls is a beloved Canadian restaurant institution and a recognized market leader recently expanding operations into several prime US location including Miami and Boston with more restaurants scheduled to open in 2015.
Earls Shepard Flats in Calgary
As the Managing Director of Design at Earls, Wendy Tait's mission is to design stunning spaces, and execute them efficiently anywhere the business dictates along with her team of designers and project managers. For more than 8 years, CONTI Evolution has been a close and trusted partner for Earls, helping to develop an in-store audio video program that has delivered a consistent music and video experience as Earls has grown across North America.
Earls Head Office Boardroom
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Wendy and learn more about her outlook on design, project management, and what makes Earls such a great place to work.
Q. Wendy, How did you get started in the design profession?
A. I began my design career in office design, working for a corporate design firm here in Vancouver. That gave me a really great base from which to grow in the design profession. They taught me so much about the business of interior design during my tenure there.
Q.What do you find particularly rewarding about restaurant design?
In restaurant design you want to provide, above all else, a space with great flow. There are several distinct areas within a restaurant; the patio, the Dining Room, the Bar, the Lounge, and of course, the Kitchen - each have their own challenges and opportunities, and we love weaving them together in such a way that it performs flawlessly for both the staff and the guest.
Q. Wendy, you've been a part of the team at Earls for some time now. What makes Earls such a great place to work?
It's the people! Earls really believes in its people, and you can feel that commitment whether you're at the restaurant or at Head Office. We're a family, and we like to have fun. At earls, people are our most important resource in delivering engaging experiences that build relationships for life.
Q. I've always noticed that Earls has a strong "team" culture. As a manager, how do you continue to foster this great culture?
Earls has already created the momentum, so it's easy to keep it living within the Design Department, through team building events and the like. And being a group of designers, we're always bouncing ideas off each other. There are no 'silos' in our department.
Q. As a team manager, what is your greatest challenge?
A. With a team of 9 designers, it's all about collaboration, and making sure everyone gets heard.
Q. When you set out to design a new restaurant, what customer experience are you trying to create?
We want to create a place for people to connect with each other. We want to elevate the dining experience to one that's dynamic, social, energetic, and yet comfortably casual.
Q. Earls restaurants are highly regarded as being both comfortable and innovative spaces. What inspires your team's design approach?
While we have a common design direction for our restaurants, we want each location to be individually compelling. Our designs include custom elements such as lighting and large art installations; truly unique features that you can't find anywhere else. At earls, we strive to make every seat be the best seat in the house.
Q. Music and Video is obviously a big part of the customer experience for Earls, why do you choose to work with CONTI Evolution?
CONTI provides a one stop shop, they just take care of everything, from concept to execution. CONTI's commitment to their customer is evident right through the entire process, and beyond. I feel CONTI shares a similar value set to earls. I find CONTI's people to be reliable, honest, and accountable.
Q. Many restaurants in the upscale casual segment are choosing to minimize the number of TV's in their space to create greater focus on music, food and good conversation. Where do you see this trending for Earls?
There's this invisible line between restaurant vs sports bar that we are careful not to cross. We like the energy that TVs create, but don't want them to be oppressive. We edit the location of our TVs in our restaurants so that customers can choose the experience they want.
Q. Miami was an exciting new expansion for Earls and one that CONTI was also a part of. What were some of the challenges in support a project so far from Vancouver?
You can't really get farther geographically than Vancouver to Miami! It was a challenge in every respect, from finding local trades in a brand new market, to getting our Canadian vendors' products across the border. As you can imagine, with managing a project so far away, regular communication was a top priority.
Q. How was CONTI's team able to support your team with this ambitious expansion?
We shared with CONTI what we were looking to achieve on this project, and they took care of the rest. From designing the system, to recommending and specifying product, right through to sending the programmer to site to ensure a flawless AV install, CONTI provided a fantastic experience.
Q. The restaurant business is extremely competitive, why do you believe that Earls has been so successful for so many years?
We consistently deliver irresistible food and drink and an engaging experience to every one of our guests!
Q. What would you like to achieve in your next design project?
The earls design team is constantly innovating, always looking for opportunities to elevate the customer experience. We're seeing great success with opening up views to our cookline, exposing the magic of our kitchens to the guest, and we see ourselves taking that even further in our next project. We're also looking for a more seamless integration with technology, both for the staff and the guest.
Q. What exciting new projects are on your forecast for 2015?
2015 will see 2 brand new markets for Earls Stateside: New City in Chicago, and Tyson's Corner in Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, DC. There's also another Florida location on it's way in early 2016. I wish I could tell you about other opportunities coming our way, but I have to keep those a secret for now I'm afraid! ;)
That wraps up my recent interview with Wendy Tait. I'd like to thank Wendy for sharing her time with us and for taking the time to share her experiences with Earls and all the great things they're working towards as a business.
Colby Harder is an entrepreneur, blogger, and the President of CONTI Evolution, an audio video advisory services firm that develops audio video programs that support audio video projects across North America for customers and brands including Earls Restaurants, SilverBirch Hotels, SAP, Nordstrom, and hundreds of regional and local innovators.