Justin Tisdall is the co-founder of Juke Fried Chicken and Beetbox. This former competitive swimmer is at the forefront of a dining revolution in his adopted home of Vancouver, taking the high-end restaurant concept where he learned the hospitality game, and transporting it to the world of comfort food and high-quality takeout.
With Juke now entering its sixth year of business, two of which came during an unprecedented pandemic, we caught up with Justin to learn more about his laid-back philosophy on business, and future plans for his growing empire.
Even though it wasn’t my priority at the time, I approached the idea of restaurants the same way I approached my academics or my swimming – I was trying to learn as much as I could and be the best I could at it while always looking for ways to improve
How did you get started in entrepreneurship?
Back in my university days, I moved out west from Toronto to UBC to swim for the Canadian national team. Unfortunately, that was in the time before the 2010 Olympics when there wasn’t a ton of funding in amateur athletics, so I just didn’t have enough money to survive in Vancouver.
I knew I needed to find a job that fit around my training schedule, which was 4:45am on the pool deck ‘till 6pm at night. The only thing that allowed me to still study for school, earn a living and spend time in the pool was working nights at restaurants and bars. Trying to get ahead as an elite athlete, it wasn’t ideal and I compromised a lot of my swimming career and ability just sleeping a few hours a night.
Even though it wasn’t my priority at the time, I approached the idea of restaurants the same way I approached my academics or my swimming – I was trying to learn as much as I could and be the best I could at it while always looking for ways to improve. I started out as a bar back in a restaurant downtown and they eventually trained me to be a bartender. I’m a naturally curious guy, so I threw myself into learning about cocktails, the history of bartending and any other info I could. Eventually, it led me to working at better and better restaurants. It also opened a number of doors for me – managing bars, consulting on bar programs – and that’s where I met my business partner Bryan Satterford, who was working as a chef at the time.
I started thinking that bartending, while an honourable career, but wasn’t my long term goal. I always wanted to be my own boss. I loved restaurants and all the experiences they provided, but I was not 100% sold if this was going to be my future. I began looking at other fields of business; I took interviews with people who were leaders in their craft and nothing really clicked for me. I began to centre on this idea that doing my own thing and opening my own restaurant was the way to go. My wife told me that if I was going to do it, I HAD to do it with Bryan.
I pitched him on the idea of taking that fine dining concept we had both been working in but making it accessible and approachable to people on a daily basis. That’s what Juke Fried Chicken is, the idea was a cocktail bar with fried chicken.
Talk us through how your three businesses work and interact with one another
When I wrote the business plan for Juke, the goal was to develop another concept every 24 months. It could be Juke, it could be another restaurant concept entirely – it was pretty ambitious but I consider myself a pretty ambitious guy. The idea was that if we can create a structure for our business that’s a bit more ‘plug and play’ that we can always replicate that model.
So, we had the nuts and bolts of what we wanted our company to grow into. Our first step was to try and do another Juke on a smaller scale. Quickly, we realized we did it way too close to our flagship restaurant in Gastown. Our new location was in the West End here in Vancouver. We ended up quickly switching it to something else.
At the time, we were already looking at creating a vegan plant-based food truck, so we turned Little Juke into Beetbox and it’s been a big success since then. Like everyone else in our industry, the pandemic threw a giant curveball at us. Originally, Juke was going to be that starting concept of fried chicken on one side and cocktail bar on the other. We even had a name – Chickadee and Wing Man, but we realized during COVID we could give the dining room cocktail bar its own identity, but nest it within Juke. All three are different concepts with their own stories, brand and imagery.
I’m a huge believer in learning from your mistakes and failures and learning from them and using the experience to help the next step be more successful.
How do you balance the demands of running three businesses?
I think my background in swimming has really helped with time management skills and it also taught me a lot about what stress could be, and the detrimental effect it can have on people. I’m a pretty low stress guy. I see issues in business as things that can be resolved, rather than panicked about. All you have to do is work the problem.
I also have my wife to thank for all this. She’s been a huge resource for ideas, she keeps our family running smoothly, and she keeps me level headed. Bryan and I work really well together as business partners too. We rely on each other heavily but we also complement each other really well. We’re drastically different people with different skillsets. I like to say I’m the ideas guy and he builds the foundations – we approach our business from two different sides. Whether we agree or disagree on something, our egos are never really at play. We don’t get hurt feelings with one another if something doesn’t work. The friendship and the business always come first before our egos.
How did COVID-19 impact upon your business operations?
Earlier, I said I wasn’t really one to stress too much, but COVID really put that to the test.
Thinking back to March 17th, 2020, I’d had my daughter born just a month before that. I can vividly remember sitting at home at 2am, I was feeding my daughter and I began to hear things were going to shut down here in BC. Once she fell asleep, I sat down and penned a eulogy for the business, a sort of thank you letter to Vancouver. At that moment, I didn’t think we’d survive what was to come.
Thankfully, I woke up the next morning, called my business partners and the vibe was totally different. We began to talk about how we could fight this, what could we do to survive? We were fortunate that Juke was already in the takeout business, so that was a natural pivot for us to make. That side of the business went really well during COVID, and we even used the time closed to build up Chickadee.
Unfortunately, Beetbox wasn’t in such a good position. We were only 6 months into operation and we were still developing the brand. The concern was real. Wisely, Bryan came up with a great idea. You had all of these vegan and vegetarian people cooking and making fresh food at home now, so Bryan thought of packaging all of our Plant-based sauces into a line that people could stock their fridge with and use when preparing their meals. As soon as that idea clicked and started taking off, we had the idea of creating one new menu item a week to give people something to tune in for and drive more sales.
Looking back on it, we were fortunate that we were two business owners who could make quick decisions in five minutes. As long as it felt right, even if the idea was wrong, we rolled with it. Other companies can’t pivot that quickly. In the end, we were able to use what we learned doing takeout to help our friends in business get set up to do takeout themselves – issues like how far their food could travel, what packaging they needed, negotiating delivery rates – all that important information you’d usually need to take time to learn.
It’s important for us to help our friends in the community because we know we aren’t an island. We need other independent restaurants around or else corporate chains will take over.
What are the future plans for your businesses?
Coming out of COVID the future is exciting, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. We really want to expand our company for starters. You’re only going to live once, so you might as well take some risks. You’re never more alive in the restaurant business than those fist six months of building out and opening a restaurant. It’s really exciting but it’s also a crazy thing to do!
That being said, we’re also a little cautious because we’re in such a weird place globally right now, there’s a recession and interest rates might go up, war is breaking out. People may not come out of COVID with the same financial security they once had. We’re still being cautious but we really want to increase our brand three/fourfold and eventually have 100 Juke Chicken’s across Canada in the next ten to fifteen years.
For two guys running a small independent hospitality group, it always comes back to time and money. We have great people around us to help us achieve our goals, but we need to take it one step at a time. When people say to us, ‘you should open here’ or ‘you should invest here’ my answer always goes back to needing more time and needing more money!
What do you enjoy the most about running a business?
Well, I love that favour or failure falls on us, so I’ll always bet on myself. I know that not everything I/We do will work, but I’m a huge believer in learning from your mistakes and failures and learning from them and using the experience to help the next step be more successful.
I also like the fact that it’s not a regular job. I don’t know what each day is going to bring and you aren’t just sitting at a desk watching the clock. Motion brings emotion and when it’s your business you’re passionate about it and you want to get your team sharing in that passion. You can be hands on with people without having to hold their hands or micro manage them.
We use our restaurants as our offices, so I’m always close to my team an our guests. That the culture we want to foster and community that we want to build. You’ve got these people you care about and they care about you and if you can help them reach their goals in life, that’s huge to me. We are all about developing a team that wants to push us in the same direction, and in turn we reinvest in them and their goals. I guess that’s what being in a community is all about.
We are all about developing a team that wants to push us in the same direction, and in turn we reinvest in them and their goals. I guess that’s what being in a community is all about.
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