Ryan Smolkin, the zany, Smiths Falls, Ont.-bred entrepreneur best known for his restaurants serving poutine smothered in an endless array of toppings, has died.
The founder of Smoke’s Poutinerie Inc. was 50.
He died Sunday of unexpected complications from a recent surgery, the company said Monday, adding that he dreamt of achieving “global domination” with the Ajax, Ont.-based brand.
“He wanted to be in every city and every country in the world and that’s what he preached from day one,” said Smoke’s president and chief operating officer Mark Cunningham, who Smolkin chose to be his successor.
Smolkin started Smoke’s in 2009, slinging hefty heaps of poutine topped with ingredients like pulled pork, bacon, cheeseburgers and butter chicken. He chose poutine simply because it was “unique,” Cunningham said.
At Smoke’s, Smolkin called himself the chief entertainment officer, a role that saw him curate more than 30 varieties of the fry-based dish his chain would sell. He also starred in a smattering of YouTube videos. In many of the clips, he sports mirrored shades and a furry trapper hat, topping everything from Timbits to devilled eggs or apple pie in gravy to answer the question, “Will it gravy?”
Though Cunningham said Smolkin could be quiet and reserved, he lit up when all eyes were on him.
“When the light came on for the camera, he was ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” Cunningham recalled.
Smolkin’s food and persona caught on fast with Canadians, including actor Seth Rogen, who once told the Toronto Star that Smoke’s fries smothered in smoked meat, cheese curds and gravy would be his ideal last meal on Earth, if he had to choose.
Such praise helped Smoke’s expand from its first location on Adelaide Street West in Toronto to roughly 100 locations all over Canada, and at one time, in the U.S.
He often said his goal was to take poutine — long a Quebec delicacy — all over the world, telling staff, “Nothing stops the gravy train.”
Along the way, he founded the World Poutine Eating Championship, where competitive eater Joey Chestnut once downed 28 pounds of poutine in 10 minutes.
In 2016, he added a CEO component to the championship, where food industry leaders competed and raised money for We Care, a charity sending kids with disabilities to camp, whose board Smolkin sat on.
Smolkin competed in the executive version of the competition, but often had a few hijinks planned. “He’d water down the gravy or we’d put something else in the box for him or he would go around giving lots of his competitors more boxes than he had,” Cunningham said.
Smolkin, he added, imbued much of what he did with rock ‘n’ roll.
He would sing in the brand’s restaurants, outfitted its headquarters with a big video screen to play 1980s rock videos and even challenged partners and suppliers at the company’s conferences to play air guitar on stage, Cunningham said.
But perhaps one of his biggest rock ‘n’ roll moments came when he met Kiss star Gene Simmons. The two sparked a friendship, leading to Smolkin visiting Simmons at his Los Angeles home, Cunningham said.
They chatted by the pool and Smolkin was always thrilled when Simmons texted while out on tour.
“Not only did (Smolkin) respect (Simmons) from a from a music standpoint, but he respected him as a business entrepreneur,” Cunningham said.
“They had a strong bond, that’s for sure.”
Like Simmons, Smolkin had a flare for marketing.
Smolkin picked out the Smoke’s red and black checkered plaid colour scheme, reminiscent of the shirts he often wore, and emblazoned his stores with a sketched logo of company mascot Smoke.
The branding was a chance to draw on Smolkin’s past as a head of a marketing and design company that boasted Nike, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Molson Breweries and Corus Entertainment as clients.
Away from work, he was a proud father of twins Nate and Sam, and is also survived by his father and two siblings.
Since they announced his death, Cunningham said his family and Smoke’s has seen an outpouring of support.
“He had a big heart,” Cunningham said.
“He would be a guy that would give you that high five or that pat on the shoulder or that big, big hug … He had an effect over people, that’s for sure.”