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The Fuller’s recipe for West Coast casual dining
Nearly three decades ago the Fuller family opened Earls on Marine Drive in North Van and introduced a new style of dining out that’s still influencing Vancouver’s food scene.
West Coast dining changed forever when Earls opened on Marine Drive 29 years ago.
Pastel-coloured leather covered the booths. Chrome adorned chairs and decorative parrots hung from the ceiling.
This quintessential ’80s look was an instant hit.
The “Tin Palace” in North Vancouver was one of the first Earls to open, launching West Coast casual dining, a trend that’s become a fixture in the Lower Mainland.
The chain was founded by Stan Earl Fuller and his father Leroy “Bus” Earl Fuller in the early 1980s.
They built the first Earls in Edmonton, a beer-and-burger bar coated in green and white paint. North Van’s came soon after, minus the palm trees that have become its signature today.
“The interest rates [in the early ’80s] were the highest in decades, before or since,” explains Stan Fuller at his office near Capilano Mall.
The down economy changed the way businesses were run, he says, and pushed some into the ground.
“But people still had a real desire for a dining experience, not a fast-food experience.”
The only place on the North Shore for casual but elegant dining was The Keg, then located on Lower Lonsdale, says Fuller.
“[The Keg] was doing huge business because it offered steak at a reasonable price, so we decided to do sort of the same thing.”
And with that, Earls was born.
Back in the day, burgers were $3.25 and a pint of beer was just over a dollar.
“It was ultra-’80s,” says Fuller, reminiscing about the opening of the North Van and downtown locations. “But we change the decor around every ten years to keep up with what people like.”
It’s more than the ambiance, however, that’s changed at the benchmark restaurant. The menu includes Dungeness crab and asparagus linguini, Dominical fish tacos and baby calamari, offerings that are a far cry the beer-and-burger joint’s humble beginning.
The Fuller family food empire
The Fuller Group of Restaurants began when Bus Fuller took a major risk.
He moved his young family from Montana to Edmonton to open an A&W, a fast-food restaurant that was mostly unheard of back in the ‘50s.
The retired refinery worker soon became Canada’s biggest franchisee.
“My father borrowed $10,000 to move to Edmonton and open it up,” says Fuller, adding the family later founded Fuller Family Restaurants, which have since closed down.
“Fuller Family Restaurants were more like Denny’s,” explains Fuller. “They were open 24 hours, and quite frankly they weren’t any fun [to run].”
Then came the idea for Earls.
Starting as The Green and White restaurant, the first Earls became a hit in Edmonton with a younger crowd that craved nachos, potato skins, burgers and lots of beer. Finally they had a place to eat that wasn’t too fancy or family-oriented.
With one successful restaurant, the Fuller’s decided to move West to open Earls Tin Palace in North Van — “Tin” because it has a laid back atmosphere and “Palace” because it’s also a chic place to dine. (North Van’s Earls still has a tin ceiling today).
“It was risky,” says Fuller. “But it paid off. We were confident because we were getting a great response. Everyone loved the concept that they could come in and connect with friends, and it’s affordable.”
And pay off it did.
The Fullers tapped into a void in the market that people were eagerly waiting to be filled.
“It was the very first to have unique burgers, they were a step up,” remembers Nathan Fong, a food journalist who grew up in West Van. “It was one of the places to go.”
Today there are 64 Earls in Western Canada, Ontario, Washington and Colorado, raking in $250 million in revenue a year.
The family, which includes brothers Jeff and Stewart, also owns 22 Joey Restaurants, the Saltlik Steakhouse and is a recent partner in The Beach House in West Vancouver.
The three brothers, says Fuller, run each chain independently and are often in competition with each other. But the restaurants have similar concepts —casual but relaxed dining, West Coast-style food and friendly staff — all stemming back to the concepts launched by the original Earls three decades ago.
West Coast casual is now the largest segment of sit-down dining, says Fuller.
“Consistency of service and food quality is paramount,” he adds. “It’s no longer good enough to just use good ingredients.”
From A&Ws to Fuller Family Restaurants to launching West Coast casual dining, the Fuller family has done it all, including helping out up-and-coming restaurateurs.
When two long-term Earls employees, Richard Jaffrey and Scotty Morison, wanted to open their own restaurant they turned to Stan for advice and he agreed to personally invest, leaving his family out of it.
Welcome the Cactus Club.
Starting in North Van, the chain now has 16 restaurants in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. Even with a stake in the chain, Fuller says he is very much at arm’s length.
Eventually Scotty Morison decided to go out on his own and founded Browns SocialHouse, opening in central Lonsdale, Lynn Valley and Park Royal Village (now closed) and 12 other locations in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
Food journalist Nathan Fong says the proliferation of chain restaurants in Vancouver can make it difficult for independent restaurants to compete, but there’s no denying the profound influence Earls and some of its offshoots have had on the local food scene.
“We are very fortunate to have such a great culinary industry. It’s something to be very proud of, especially if you compare Vancouver with the rest of Canada.”
Fuller echoes this sentiment, saying the Lower Mainland has the best, most affordable and freshest West Coast cuisine around.
When Earls moved into North Van, the Fuller family wanted to attract a younger crowd, similar to their diners in Edmonton.
“As it turns out we were after the young at heart, all ages come here,” he says.
But some parents with young children have recently questioned just how welcome they are.
Reported widely in the media, a Facebook post early last month drew wrath from some parents with young children who felt unwelcome at Earls due to its policy of not providing highchairs.
But a more common backlash, says Fuller, used to come from diners who faced a crying baby nearby.
“As we were getting more sophisticated, a lot of couples had left their young children at home or had raised their families,” he tells The Outlook.
“A baby left screaming in a highchair can clear out an entire restaurant, and these diners won’t come back to us next time.”
Cases like this show Earls has evolved from a burger-and-beer joint to a more sophisticated establishment.
The concept will likely continue to change with restaurants like Milestones, Rockford, Steamworks and Sammy J. Peppers proving we can’t get enough of West Coast casual dining.