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Serial Entrepreneur

The story of Joe Klassen and his Joey’s Group of Companies

Joe Klassen. Photo by Ewan Photo Video.

It is often said great things start with small beginnings. New ideas, first experiences, initial meetings; these are the simple, unremarkable outsets to many of life’s great accomplishments. Though relatively small and unpredicted of future success, they are crucial; given time, hard work, good decisions and a bit of luck, they can set the stage for great achievements down the road.

Just ask Joe Klassen. Starting with a single fish and chips restaurant in Calgary’s beltline in 1985, Klassen has grown his Joey’s Group of Companies into a true empire. It includes over 60 restaurants across Canada, magazines, a printing company, a wholesale food import-distribution company, a biodiesel plant, an oil servicing business, land development and commercial buildings and more, employing over 800 people across the country. And his story is nowhere near finished.

“It was the idea of a restaurant I really wanted,” Klassen says about the first Joey’s Restaurant he and wife Theresa opened 32 years ago. “We picked the seafood fish and chips category because it was an untapped niche in a land-locked market. It turned out to be the right decision.”

Originally from Kelowna, Klassen modestly admits to always having been a hard worker. He was first exposed to the restaurant business while working part time as a young teenager on the Fintry Queen paddle-wheel tour boat on Okanagan Lake. He would wash dishes, prep seafood and even had a chance to cook; a first experience that left a lasting impression.

After moving to Olds with his family and finishing high school, he came to Calgary at the age of 17. “I came here thinking I would go to SAIT for further education and instead got a job with a college painting business,” he says. Long hours meant little rest. “I remember sleeping in my car in the Chinook mall parking lot a couple of nights because I was too tired to go home,” he chuckles.

Soon dissatisfied with the management of the company, Klassen started his own painting and wallpapering business. In 1985, he pursued his goal of being in the restaurant business.

The Klassens were young when they opened the first Joey’s Restaurant – just 21 years of age. Despite their efforts, it wasn’t initially successful. “I remember one Saturday morning I woke up and looked at Theresa and said, ‘Should I even go in? Should we just close down?’” Klassen recalls. “We discussed it and she said, ‘We’re not broke yet so let’s give it one more shot.’” That last shot proved worthwhile, and through word of mouth the restaurant soon started to take off.

That first taste of success left Klassen wanting more. “I got antsy,” he says. “So I moved on to the next challenge.” He brought in a partner and over the next seven years, he and Dave Mossey opened nine additional Joey’s Restaurants in Calgary and Edmonton. The next logical step was franchising.

“I was always exploring franchising possibilities and wanted to go forward, but I needed a salesperson – I’m an introvert,” he confesses. “Dave looked after franchise sales and I managed operations. With my wife overseeing the office and finances, we all grew the business together.”

The franchising endeavour proved fruitful (60 restaurants across Canada as mentioned above), likely due to Klassen and Mossey’s approach. “We view our franchisees as business partners,” Klassen says. “Their success is our success.” Klassen, Mossey and their team work with franchisees to understand and implement their needs within the company. This attitude is based in Klassen’s own experiences. “There are a lot of people who have helped me grow the company, including customers, suppliers, friends and family. I just want to make sure that we give the same support in return.”

Hardly one to sit back and relax, Klassen and his team developed Joey’s Urban, a slightly different version of Joey’s Restaurants, geared to a younger crowd. The fast-casual restaurants (there are currently eight) serve the same famous fish and chips, as well as tacos and poutines. “We’ve been experimenting and growing Urban for the last four years, and we’ve got some new, exciting changes coming up,” Klassen reports. “We’ve attracted the younger generation and we want them visiting more often.” New menu choices and ingredients are planned, as well as a possible name change.

Indeed, Klassen and his team have worked hard to remain current. “We’re Ocean Wise for 70 per cent of our products. We’re looking at all options in sustainability and to choose the right products for our customers.”

Reliance on his team is essential for Klassen. In fact, he doesn’t have a formal role within any of his companies, calling himself simply senior executive. “For several years I haven’t had a direct role,” he explains. “I don’t sell; I don’t procure. You might say I look down from the 30,000-foot level. I understand where other businesses are at right now. And I look at new opportunities.”

His leadership style has also been key. “In the beginning I was a bit of a tyrant,” he recalls, “but I soon learned that it was through sharing ideas, making hard decisions and moving forward; that’s how I lead. I allow others to do their jobs because that’s what they were hired for. I am demanding, but through mutual respect, I believe that people want to work.” An ostensibly effective approach that has garnered much loyalty. “We have some employees with over 20 years in the company.”

Today, Klassen’s business group goes far beyond seafood restaurants. Chief among these are Teja (pronounced “tee-jay”) Food Group, his food import and distribution business. Teja was born in the early days of the Joey’s franchise, when a supplier reneged on a promise. “We needed to ensure a steady supply of great seafood,” Klassen explains. “We only procured product for the Joey’s brand to begin with, but we’ve since grown into a major company that sells to other distributors and wholesalers. In fact, many different restaurants utilize our products.”

With its nine employees based at the Joey’s head office in Calgary, Teja sells fish and ocean fare, a variety of appetizers, sushi and a line of sous-vide foods (including turkey wings, duck confit and porchetta) from Quebec. Teja is also a partner in Cedar Bay Grilling, a processing plant near Halifax that processes cedar-plank salmon. Their products are distributed across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Klassen’s partnership in Printcor – a printing company located in northeast Calgary with 12 employees – also evolved because of the restaurants. “We needed a lot of print material and decided it would be a good idea to own a printing company,” he says. In operation for the past 11 years, Printcor does all the printing for the Joey’s and Urban restaurants and much more. “We have a wide range of customers from across the country and print everything from magazines to brochures and business cards.”

In particular, Printcor coordinates printing for Homes and Land Canada Magazine, another franchise Klassen and Mossey bought three-and-a-half years ago. With 14 publisher-partners across Canada, the partners are looking to continue to grow their franchise across Canada. “It’s a really good business,” Klassen says. “It requires very few employees for the franchisees who are typically owner and marketer oriented, and is quite profitable with a very small investment.”

Not all of Klassen’s businesses are related however. He saw the opportunity to be a leader in the emerging bioenergy field and bought his latest project, Invigor Bioenergy Corporation, two years ago with several investor friends. It is a 71-million-litre-per-year biodiesel plant located in Lethbridge. His vision is to build a world-class renewable biofuel and chemical enterprise with products that are renewable, low-carbon, non-toxic and biodegradable complements to traditional energy sources.

Some of Klassen’s newer ventures come from within his group. Fund Forward Community Fundraisers is one of these, with a charitable focus. “We have great buying power on terrific meat and seafood which allows us to pass on the opportunity for community organizations, sports teams and not-for-profits to sell and raise funds,” he says. “It’s all web-based so it’s easy to order, receive and distribute products.” Since inception three years ago, Fund Forward has helped countless groups achieve their fundraising goals.

Fund Forward isn’t the only way Klassen assists charities. He is one of several founders of the Business Fore Calgary Kids (BFCK) Charity Golf Tournament. Now in its 12th year, it has raised over $2.25 million for children’s charities supporting kids in need. Previous to his tenure with BFCK, Joey’s Franchising held its own charity golf tournament for 10 years in support of the Alzheimer Society which raised over $2 million.

He has also been on the board of the Calgary Dream Centre and on the financial boards of a few local churches. He has made numerous trips to impoverished countries such as Belize and Mexico helping to build homes and communities through YWAM and Habitat for Humanity. He has even brought some of his own children (he has five) along.

Most recently, Klassen has a new motivation to give back. His oldest grandchild Paisley has Potocki-Lupski syndrome, resulting in developmental delay. “I’ve been so blessed in my life with my family, my business associates and many loyal friends. Everyone is out there helping me. I aspire to pay it forward and help others pursue their dreams.”

However, don’t think he hasn’t had failures too. “I’ve made just a bit more than I’ve lost, I think,” he laughs. “There’s been plenty [of failures]; sometimes the timing was off or it was the wrong type of business, but that’s OK. We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if I didn’t try all these different things with lots of people and learn from my mistakes.”

With his children grown and two grandkids, the relatively young Klassen does take some time for fun. “I fly my plane,” he says of his Cessna 414 twin-engine. “And I’ve got a fishing boat down in Cabo [San Lucas] that I use once in a while.” He returns to Kelowna too, where he still has many friends.

He’s focused on the future, where there will no doubt be many more ventures. Though he started small, Klassen is certainly no longer that. His businesses, and he himself, are indeed great.