In one year, Bill Pratt opened two of the most popular restaurants in Dartmouth. Now that he’s well on his way to opening a third, much bigger eatery in Burnside, he has many wondering: what’s the secret?
Published in the June issue of Progress magazine.
It’s a cold and cloudy January day when I corner Bill Pratt at the end of Cheese Curds Gourmet Burger + Poutinerie’s serving line for an interview. The forty-nine-year-old has an iPhone in one hand, a cup of ice in the other, and a scarf wrapped under a salt and pepper goatee. On the wall behind him in black lettering is his restaurant’s promise: “If you’re in a hurry and want a fast, pre-cooked burger, you’re probably in the wrong place. If you’d rather have a fresh burger cooked in front of you and then build it your way with a selection of incredible toppings, this is where you need to be. Now that is a burger worth waiting for.”
Judging by how quickly I devoured one of his infamous lamb burgers five minutes earlier, I’d have to agree. Four doors down in the same Dartmouth strip mall, his team is delivering a similar promise at Pratt’s second restaurant, Habaneros Modern Taco Bar. Today, at lunchtime alone, they served 134 people—not bad for a grey day in the middle of winter. In August, Cheese Curds celebrated serving an astounding 100,000 people in its first six months in business.
“There is no formula to our success,” Pratt says, now seated and leaning forward in one of Cheese Curds’ twenty-four chairs. “It’s just really good food and we’ve created a steady clientele. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, and you have to get in the trenches and do it.”
The military metaphor is an apt one for Pratt, who spent twenty-seven years progressing through the culinary ranks of the Navy. By the time he retired, he was a Command Chief in charge of all the Navy’s cooks on the east and west coasts. While still in the military, he’d also work 40 hours a week in some of the west’s best restaurants, including Earl’s Tin Palace in Edmonton. Even now—outside the 7, 14-hour days he puts in most weeks—he’s finding time to work with PEI’s most famous chef, Michael Smith. Over the past eleven years, they’ve appeared on Iron Chef America, cooked for Dick Cheney at the 2002 Olympics (“he was late for the closing ceremonies because he was having dinner with me,” Pratt’s notes proudly), and served over 12,000 athletes a day in Whistler for the 2010 Olympics.
“What I do is fun to me,” says Pratt while keeping an eye on his staff cleaning tables beside us. “But I’m not naïve. What happened to us [at Cheese Curds and Habaneros] doesn’t happen. But serving really good food is key. Other restaurants will cut corners—instead of garlic butter on their buns, for example, they put margarine. We’re not doing that.”
Pratt admits, though, that just because he pays above minimum wage, promotes within and distributes tips to everyone doesn’t mean it’s easy attracting those who have the commitment to quality he’s looking for. “I’ll take the right attitude any day over skill. I don’t need all these culinary certificates; it’s not about that. They’re working here to please the customers. People who couldn’t do that, we let go—and quite a few of them.”
He has a lot riding on the success of those who can cut it. Although he didn’t need a bank loan to get started, he burnt all of his life savings opening Cheese Curds. As that business took off, instead of going on the defensive and trying to save money, he went on the attack and invested in Habaneros. The profits from those two businesses are now funding a new restaurant, which, when it opens within the next couple of months in Burnside, will house incarnations of Cheese Curds and Habaneros.
Yet even with three restaurants on the go, he has those of us drooling over his delicious fare asking, what’s next? “Look, I don’t want one restaurant, two restaurants, three restaurants,” he says before getting on with the rest of his busy day. “But it takes time. Why not do it strategically? I’m building a company here with the right people who want to be a part of it. There’s no rush.”
Now that is a company worth waiting for.