INTERVIEW: Bud Kanke On The Sale Of Joe Fortes And 40 Years In The Restaurant Trade

Bud Kanke is a legend in Vancouver’s restaurant business. In his 40 year career, he founded 11 restaurants, among them The Cannery, Fish House in Stanley Park, Mulvaneys and the venerable Joe Fortes. In those four decades, the always smartly dressed father of three (and grandfather of six) saw his rooms rake in over half a billion dollars in sales, allowing for 20,000 man years of employment. A graduate of Magee High and UBC (Accounting), he has been active in 20 other businesses ranging from real estate development and gold mining to the manufacture of products for Boeing, General Motors, and the Hi-Tech sector. Bud has received a Lifetime Culinary Achievement Award, has twice been nominated for BC Entrepreneur of the Year, and has been inducted into the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame.

In the next 48 hours, a little over a month after his sale of Goldfish in Yaletown, Vancouver’s media outlets will receive a press release announcing his sale of Joe Fortes, Bud’s last remaining restaurant property, to David Aisenstat of The Keg (it will remain as Joe Fortes). The legend is retiring, but the show goes on. We’d like to take this opportunity – on behalf of all our readers – to thank Bud for advancing our restaurat scene along and for setting a high standard of leadership in the trade. We wish him and his wife Dotty all the best. What follows, then, is his last interview as an active restaurateur…

Where were you born and where did you grow up? Chilliwack, BC. I grew up on a dairy farm and moved to Vancouver for university.

How did you get started in the trade? By accident, I always say. I was a Controller at Rivtow Straits on Commissioner Street when a seafood salesman and designer approached me. I saw the opportunity immediately.

You’re known as an extremely careful and cautious restaurateur, even though you’ve opened nearly a dozen restaurants. How would you describe your own operating style? Apply financial acumen to a creative expression.

Can you point out any opportunities that you may have missed along the way? I thought I wanted to convert Aqua Riva into Cannery 2.0.

A while back we published a story stating that you’d sold Joe Fortes, a fixture on our restaurant landscape for many years. Our source was what we called “sacrosanct”, but you told us that no one knew better than you and if it was going to sell we’d be the first to know. A few weeks later, you sold Goldfish in Yaletown, and rumours about the fate of Fortes persist. What’s happening? Are you trying to arrange for your retirement? Is Fortes still for sale? Were we premature or way off the mark? Conditions still had to be removed in December. There was great uncertainty. A sale is when all conditions have been removed and the cheque has been cashed. We’re not there yet, but could be close. I am preparing for retirement from the restaurant business.

Out of the 11 restaurants you’ve owned, which was the hardest to let go of? Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House.

Restaurant staff are notorious for moving around, but you seem to have a knack for keeping people loyal. What’s been your secret? We have developed a culture of trust and caring for our people.

Is there a facet of the business that you think younger restaurateurs don’t pay enough attention to? The “business” of restauranteuring. Restaurants are more than about food or service or decor. You have to manage the “people” and market and maintain cash flow – or it’s over.

How have Vancouver diners changed over the years? They are much more knowledgeable due to media, Iron Chefs, reality shows, and tastings.

Name the thing that you eat that is bad for you that you will never stop eating? French fries are my favourite (the best were at Cafe de Paris).

Your default drink/cocktail of choice? Manhattan, and sometimes a Lemon Drop. Mostly wine though.

Who did you look up to when you were a kid? My father was my best role model (integrity). Also, my friend’s father Archie Russell, CA who inspired that direction (instead of architecture, which I really wanted). I satisfied that craving with 11 restaurants.

Who do you look up to know? Did – to Jack Poole, who was a friend.

Architecturally, what’s the strangest thing about Joe Fortes? The wine grotto under the stairs, and temperature controlled.

Is there a young, first time restaurateur that you really respect? Scott Jaeger at The Pear Tree and Robert Belcham of Refuel and Campanolo.

Where do you go out for dinner in Vancouver? I try the new restaurants but my favourites are Il Giardino, Le Crocodile, La Regalade, and the Fish Market in Dundarave.

The Vancouverite (outside the business) that you admire most? Terry M. Holland.

What three things could City Hall or the provincial government do to make every restaurateur’s job easier? Obviously less red tape (regulations); be more pro-business rather than an obstacle.

The Cannery was in operation for some forty years. What’s your fondest memory of it? Building it out of old artifacts. The happy smiles of guests leaving.

What restaurant location have you long secretly coveted? A site to the west of VCC above the Harbour Air terminal.

Which local restauranteur do you respect the most, and why? Jack Evrensel – quality and perseverance. Also, Umberto Menghi for his commitment to quality Tuscan fare.

The historical personalities, both good and bad, that fascinate you the most? Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, F.D. Roosevelt.

You have a great personal style. Where do you get your suits? Respectful business dress. I used to go to E. A. Lee. In California, there are a variety of different places.

Your go to, no-frills place for dinner? Fish Market in Dundarave, and California Pizza Kitchen (in California, of course).

If you could board a plane this afternoon, where would it be taking you? Palm Springs, CA.

The strangest place you’ve ever been to? Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The three books that you read that made an impact on you in your formative years? Warren Buffett, Jack Canfield’s Success Principles, and Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Daily net sales at Joe Fortes are the stuff of local legend. We’ve heard quite a few high numbers over the years. Can you enlighten us to the truth about Joe Fortes’ biggest day ever? That’s confidential, but likely the highest in Vancouver. The Olympics were huge.

Where was the last place you traveled to for work or pleasure? Chicago to attend the Restaurant Show.

What was the biggest disaster that ever took place in any one of your restaurants? Fire in the Dumb Waiter at The Cannery caused by nearby Mesquite Grill. Panicked but got under control quite quickly, could have been a disaster.

The strangest talent that you possess? I can visualize a working restaurant even before it becomes one. I can see the guest dining with great pleasure, the sounds, the movements. Have always been able to.

The different career path that you could have gone on? Chief Financial Officer.

Your three favourite films? Out of Africa, Casablanca, Chicago.

Where/when did you get the iconic old yellow taxicab in front of Joe Fortes? Do you have some special deal with the City on parking? It came from Santa Barbara. Bought it from the President of Chrysler Car Club. It was beige and we created the best moving billboard in Vancouver. We feed the meter every two hours.

The greatest deal you’ve ever made? Mulvaneys in 1975. It was bankrupt and I saw the potential.

Your most regrettable purchase ever? Peters on Broadway, which became our 9th Ave Grill, then sold to Red Robin and ultimately to Swiss Chalet. Couldn’t make it work on West Broadway.

Your major character flaw? Too reserved.

The character flaw in others that you can’t abide? I don’t like to be judgmental of others – so none.

How do you know when you can trust someone? Takes time, must be earned.

What are you the most proud of? Building appealing places to dine. The Cannery, Mulvaneys, Viva, Joe Fortes, Fish House, and Goldfish.

What is the best thing about your work? I enjoy creating a cocoon that is pleasing to the guest. To transport them somewhere nice.

What is the worst thing about your work? Details, the devil is in the details; very time/worry consuming.

The wine that you will always say yes to? Mer Soleil Chardonnay and Pahlmeyer Red (Claret).

How did you meet Frenchy, your partner and the long time maitre’d at Joe Fortes? He started as a waiter 20 years ago after Crystal and Mandarin closed (now The Met).

The talent that you wish you possessed? To be a more inspiring leader.

If you had a motto, what would it be? “There must be a better way” – Thomas Edison.

Your favourite word? Don’t have one, but I like “Kaizen”; Japanese for continual improvement.

Three things of no monetary value that you own and will keep dearly forever? Certain books by Emmett Fox, Sarah Young, and Rick Warren.

How did you meet your wife, Dotty (the sweetest lady ever), and how long have you been married? Blind date for dinner at Mulvaneys. We’ve been married for 25 years.

The secret to a successful marriage? Compromise. Know when to fold ‘em. Would you rather be happy or right?

What music do you listen to at home? Classical, Country and Western, and the American standards.

The one place that you have the least interest in ever visiting? India.

Are there people that you’ve employed at one time or another who have moved on to do things that you’re immensely proud of? Yes. Geoff Howes, David Richards, Tiberio Faedo, and Darren Gates.

Where do you see Vancouver’s restaurant scene going in the next decade? New Millennia chefs, bistros-like Gastown (small businesses), no limit cuisine (i.e. globally inspired), such as Asian street food, Caribbean, South American, etc.

What does the future hold for Bud and Dotty? Where do you see yourselves in a year? We hope to help a charity build a new Health Centre in Vancouver to serve better the 34,000 patients annually.

You’re a Hall of Famer, as widely respected a restaurateur as this city has ever had. Do you have any words of wisdom for your younger colleagues who are just starting out? Focus on what you are better at. Learn skills in business management as soon as possible, cash flow management, costings, and marketing ROI. Also, avoid gut feel and substitute facts instead – then make an informed decision.

  • http://www.laurenmote.com Lauren Mote

    An awesome interview with an ultra inspiring man! I’m delighted to have had the chance to serve as a manager in one of his companies, and learn so much from him and his team. Happy “resto” retirement Mr. Bud!

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  • http://www.chastonconstruction.com Len Chaston

    Great interview. I grew up in Bud’s restaurants and didn’t even know it (Viva’s, Mulvaney’s)

    Never worked with him, but he sounds like he would be a good client. I would love to read a larger piece on his career.

    Thanks for giving him the space to be so frank.

  • Tyson Blume

    Inspiring interview. I worked a lot with Bud managing one of his restaurants. His leadership and restauranteur”isms” have helped myself and my restaurant be successful and, (I am sure) many others. Bud’s leadership will certainly be personified by his many students for years to come in the vancouver food scene. A true vancouver restaurnat legend, happy retirement Bud!

  • http://www.emilywhitephotography.ca Emily White

    Thank you for honoring this great man. Four members of my family, as well as myself have been employed at Joe Fortes over the last 8 years. He has created an icon of a restaurant and has always been a pleasure to work for. Always a gentleman, during his weekly visits, I can’t think of a time where he wasn’t smiling, greeting all of his employees with a cheerful “Hello” and a handshake. He will be dearly missed.

  • Callie

    Where is David Richards now? I remember him from The Cannery. What is he doing now (Dec/12)?