"IF YOU CAN MAKE PEOPLE feel comfortable in your environment - if it's clean, if the food is good and reasonably priced, and if people know where you are and can easily find you - that's basically all there is to running a successful place," says Denise Meehan, founder, president and owner of Lick's Ice Cream and Burger Shops Inc.
"There's no big secret." Meehan, knows whereof she speaks. She has learned those seemingly simple elements of success through decades of experience in the hospitality business. Her parents ran a hotel in Sturgeon Falls in northern Ontario until she was 12 and then the family moved to Ottawa. After "barely" finishing high school, Meehan hit the road for three years, traveling across Canada to Vancouver and Victoria, then south through the States, working in bars and restaurants along the way. She found the working atmosphere in the U.S. to be much more relaxed than in Canada. "Americans are far more open, they tend to go to regular places, such as the neighborhood bar, and to get to know and enjoy the people there. The people I worked for in the States were very pleased with my style of work; I was more disciplined than most of the individuals they hired."
Settling in Toronto on her return from the U.S, Meehan, anxious to start working, took a job running a small bar above an Italian restaurant with the owner paying her a percentage of what was brought in. "I replaced the Muzak with other music, went out and made the lounge known, and made people comfortable when they came in." Sales when she arrived were about $250 a week; six months later when she left, they had risen to between $2,000 and $3,000 per week.
Looking for a new challenge, Meehan studied the business opportunity ads in the newspapers and discovered that the operators of a marina on the Bay of Quinte, on Lake Ontario near Belleville, were looking for someone to take over their dining room. "It was an old farmhouse that had not been used in years, that had once catered meals to people who docked their boats there. So being young and ambitious and wanting to get involved, I went in and cleaned and fixed and tried to draw a clientele to the restaurant. I went there for a couple of seasons, and it was a good learning experience, but it wasn't enough to make a career or viable business out of."
Next, Meehan went to Oakville, Ont. and in April 1978, with $2,000 borrowed from her boyfriend and $4,000 from the bank, she opened an ice cream store - the first Lick's. By the end of summer, she had made enough money to put in an exhaust system and grills; a hot product, she figured, would be needed to carry her over the winter. "That was a very tough winter," she recalls. "it was probably the toughest year of my entire life, I was working from 7 a.m, to one in the morning, doing everything myself. I had one part-time employee. If l had begun the hot product immediately I would have developed the business in that area, but because I put it in so late, I didn't have the summer momentum to carry me through the winter."
Things picked up the following spring as more people discovered Meehan's excellent "Homeburger?" - spiced, ground steak without by-products, available with condiments such as hot peppers and a special sauce called Guk. They were also drawn by the antics and enthusiasm of the counter staff, whose calling out of the orders resembled rap dialogue, And there was still, of course, the ice cream.
Things have certainly evolved since those days, now with a successful chain of 25 stores and 12 more opening this year with a “wow” upscale look and a health conscious menu which includes the famous Licks Natureburger and Gobbler (Turkey Burger).
“Innovation and Determination is the key” says Meehan who is consistently looking for the next wave in customer satisfaction. “You can never stand still.”
Along with her successful chain of “Burger Boutique” franchises, Denise also heads up a retail business which offers her award winning burgers to grocery stores in Canada, and now they can also be found in grocery stores in the U.S.
“Its all about branding, the more people see your company’s name and identify it with a quality product, the more your business will develop. Pioneering a business from scratch in Canada is extremely challenging and not for the weak at heart. However the rewards are many and the road less traveled a transformative experience.”