While nibbling on a seafood platter at Earls Kitchen + Bar in West Vancouver this week, a friend told me a funny story that will likely resonate with many customers.
Just before Christmas, she made plans to meet up with colleagues for after-work drinks. Some were working from home at the time so they decided to go to Cactus Club on the North Shore, where they all live. Without thinking about it too much, my friend came here – to the airy, modernist, waterfront Earls on Ambleside Beach – sat down at a table and made herself comfortable.
“Where are you?” she texted to her colleagues.
“We’re at the bar,” they texted back. “Where are you?”
She was at the wrong restaurant. “It was so embarrassing,” she laughed as we slurped icy, cleanly shucked Kusshi oysters with yuzu mignonette. “But I’m sure it’s a common mistake. In my mind, Earls and Cactus Club are the same thing.”
The Cactus Club doesn’t have oysters (nor does the Earls in Kamloops). But the Cactus Club sushi is 10 times better than the terrible, shockingly cold, hard-packed prawn roll on this platter. And the seared-yellowtail tuna at Joey Restaurants, another sibling chain, is probably the best Japanese fusion dish in the bunch.
Wouldn’t it be nice, from a customer perspective, if we could have them all on the same platter? And isn’t it time, now that the Fuller family has acquired control of all three restaurant groups, to give up the charade of competition among this oddly related business triangle?
The Fuller brothers (Stan, Jeff, Stewart and Clay), who own the Earls and Joey chains, will be assuming full ownership of the Cactus Club Cafe. This was huge news when it was announced last week – Earls and Cactus Club are the biggest restaurant brand names in Western Canada – but not surprising.
The Fullers have been a silent partner in the Cactus Club since it was founded by Richard Jaffray and Scott Morison (two former Earls employees) in 1988. When Mr. Jaffray and Mr. Morison (now chairman and CEO of Browns Restaurant Group) parted ways, the Fullers became the majority stakeholder.
For the past few years, they’ve been embroiled in a bitter legal battle with Mr. Jaffray, who claimed that the Fullers transferred Cactus Club shares among members of the family without giving him proper notice of the deal and were using Cactus Club’s confidential financial information to give an unfair advantage to Joeys. The relationship became so acrimonious that the Fullers countersued in 2019, alleging that Mr. Jaffray has misused restaurant funds on private jets and art for his home and called for the company that runsCorCactus Club to be completely dissolved.
The recent transaction, triggered by a shotgun clause initiated by Mr. Jaffray (who was trying to buy out the Fullers), will be completed on March 2 when he steps down as president.
This turn of events must be devastating for Mr. Jaffray, who should be recognized as the person who categorically elevated the entire casual fine-dining sector when, in a stroke of genius, he hired Rob Feenie in 2008 – then one of the most celebrated chefs in all of Canada. Within a year, Cactus Club transformed from a kitschy restaurant for aspirational teenagers into a serious market leader with very good food.
(Mr. Feenie, by the way, said last fall that he was already on the way out and will be opening his own restaurant next year.)
But the truth is, the three restaurants aren’t all that different these days – and none are as good as they could be.
Earls was certainly influential in its early days, especially in the ways it introduced Canadian diners to various global cuisines. It pioneered the celebrity chef approach, with limited success, when it hired Michael Noble, in 2004, to lead product development – remotely from Calgary. And it led the national expansion of our West Coast-incubated style of chain restaurant when it opened in Toronto’s financial district, which paved the way for Cactus Club’s subsequent success.
But Earls’ culinary prowess has been waning in recent years. And I can say that with authority, not just as a critic, but as a journalist who shadowed its test kitchen for a full year for a feature story in Vancouver Magazine.
Some of its subsequent menu strategies, including the public-relations fiasco when it decided to turn its back on its home province and stop using Alberta beef, have boggled my mind. And why is it still serving up oily, stodgy Hunan Kung Pao chicken – a dish introduced on Earls menus in the eighties – next to lobster tails on seafood platters in West Vancouver?
Cactus Club, despite its glowing reputation, also comes up short on so many fronts. Last weekend, I went for dinner at Coal Harbour. It’s a spectacular restaurant in the summer, when the waterside wall of windows is rolled open and the sun sets on float planes landing in the harbour. In the dark days of winter, the cavernous environs are less impressive. The whisky sours, larded with angostura bitters by a heavy-handed bartender who must have thought he was making latte art, were undrinkable. And the eight-ounce Angus striploin with pernod peppercorn demi-glace, was so poorly executed (boiled in a sous-vide bag without a whisper of char) it tasted like a silky slice of tuna sashimi.
Mr. Jaffray was right to worry about upstart Joey. Once upon a time, Joey Tomatoes (as it was previously called) was perhaps infamously known for forcing its managers to take Landmark Forum courses on self improvement. But it’s come a long way. Of all three restaurants in the Fuller family holdings, its food is currently the best.
I went to the new North Vancouver Shipyards location in February of 2020, just before restaurants in B.C. were closed down by public health orders, and didn’t end up reviewing it. But the new menus designed by executive culinary director Matthew Stowe (a former product development chef at Cactus Club) are great – especially the Big Mac-inspired sliders royale and spicy Korean fried cauliflower.
Which is all to say, each of these three restaurant groups has its advantages. Combined, they could be great. But what a waste of resources if they keep pretending to compete. Their customers deserve better. And in the words of the late Bus Fuller, who founded the first Earls in Edmonton in 1982, “the customer always comes first.”
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