Kingston’s poutine phenomenon

The Journal investigates Kingston’s burgeoning Poutine arena in search of a clear winner

Philip Asselstine, Megalos’ head chef, blind taste-tests three local poutine options, choosing Smoke’s Poutinerie as the best.
Philip Asselstine, Megalos’ head chef, blind taste-tests three local poutine options, choosing Smoke’s Poutinerie as the best.
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Bubba’s. Smoke’s. Poutine Place. They’re all popular for one thing and they’re all within two blocks of each other in downtown Kingston.

According to Queen’s Business Professor Ken Wong, the newly formed Kingston poutine arena won’t be declaring a clear winner anytime soon. He said that despite the increase in restaurants, the downtown poutine market isn’t necessarily oversaturated.

“You’re not expanding the size of the pie, you’re just slicing it up so that each competitor gets a smaller share,” he said. “It’s a result of market maturity.”

Since this fall’s arrival of Poutine Place and Smoke’s Poutinerie, the battle for local poutine supremacy has seen businesses depend on loyalty, quality and innovative advertising techniques to establish and maintain a costumer-base.

Luckily for the newcomers, Wong said local poutine success isn’t a matter of who came first.

“If you’re the first mover and you have a product that tastes good, odds are you will survive,” he said. “If you’re the first mover and your products are less satisfactory, you won’t.

“Whoever offers the variety first will have an advantage. They will define what poutine is meant to be, and if they are successful, will convince the market of that also.”

With a portion of local poutine consumption dependant on Queen’s students, Wong said the poutine costumer-base is different than most, because loyalty only lasts four years.

“Even though you’ve been around for years, you’re still introducing yourself to each freshmen class,” he said. “You have a category that is really catering to students; not exclusively but largely. There is a constant regeneration of the student market every year.”

Wong said while Bubba’s minimal marketing methods rely on consumer loyalty and word-of-mouth, Smoke’s has taken a different approach all together.

“Guerilla marketing goes beyond just coupons, it really says that we’re going to use a whole different set of media instead of traditional communication devices,” Wong said, in reference to the now-ubiquitous Smoke’s face plastered about campus that rose awareness of the new poutine locale.

“There’s nothing on that sticker that tells me anything about the quality of this product. You’re making the assumption that Queen’s students will be driven into the store by it,” he said.

Getting the word out about Smoke’s opening in Kingston was a matter of targeting the main audience of students under age 25, Smoke’s Poutinerie’s Division St. franchise owner Andrew Kingston said.

“It was a long time coming for a new player to be around,” he said. “We’re proud to say that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” Kingston said the peak days for Smoke’s are Thursday through Saturday, when the Poutinerie experiences a high concentration of customers between 12:30 a.m. and 3 a.m.

“Where there’s students and where there’s bars, that’s where a large volume of business can come our way.”

The reasoning behind Smoke’s expansion to Kingston is the city’s eastern orientation, close to the dish’s Quebec origin. Kingston said Queen’s was the deal-maker.

“Universities are the hottest market in Canada,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm with bars, students and the downtown hub.

“With Bubba’s being there we knew poutine was already established as a stronghold so we chose to come in as well.”

Despite Smoke’s presence downtown, Bubba’s Pizzeria manager Tina Doulas said it hasn’t had any affect on their sales.

“My sales are the same as they were last year and maybe a bit up”, she said. “I get a lot of people who have gone there and come back to mine. It’s people’s preference what they want to eat.” Bubba’s Pizzeria has had its location on Princess St. for 17 years.

“A lot of people know Bubba’s,” Doulas said. “The name says it all.” She said Bubba’s poutine sales are propped up by the bars surrounding the Princess St. location.

“Everybody goes out drinking and they want to eat something to fill themselves up,” she said, adding her poutine sales peak on Friday and Saturday nights.

“The customers that come in between midnight and 2:30 a.m.”

Doulas said Bubba’s hasn’t employed new marketing techniques despite new competitors in the area.

“Well, if you like something, you’re going to go back to what you like,” she said.

The newest player in Kingston’s poutine market, Poutine Place, targeted marketing toward Queen’s students by using local magazines and flyers on campus.

Dimitrios Kotsovolos, owner of Poutine Place, said the restaurant also attracts student crowds after last call.

“After midnight we probably serve 100 to 200 people on a busier night like Friday or Saturday,” Kotsovolos said.

Luckily, these inebriated patrons haven’t caused trouble since the restaurant’s opening three months ago.

“I’m almost surprised, you know how people get late at night,” Kotsovolos said, adding that his peak weekend hours are between 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.

The drunk test

At 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, three Alfie’s revelers barged into my Brock St. home to reenact a typical late-night practice—eating. The Journal organized a blind taste test for the three contestants’ drunken palates, comparing classic poutines from both Bubba’s and Smoke’s Poutinerie.

“I know I won’t choose Bubba’s,” Max Fincham, ArtSci ’11, said. “They threw me out once.”

Blindfolded with an old plaid shirt, Fincham tasted both and chose Bubba’s.

The Journal provided the contestants with a score card divided into five categories: Consistency, Fries, Gravy, Curds and Overall Taste. The categories were scored out of five, with space provided at the bottom of the card for additional comments and questions probing on whether or not the contestant would pay for the poutine and recommend it to friends.

In the additional comments on his gravy-stained scorecard, Fincham wrote that he would pay for both of the poutines but added an asterisk stipulating that “I would pay for anything if I am drunk.”

OVERALL SCORES

Bubba’s: 57/75
Smoke’s: 61/75

—Jake Edmiston

The expert

Local expert Philip Asselstine jogged his palate yesterday afternoon, taste testing local poutines in a break before the dinner rush. Asselstine, the head chef at Megalos restaurant, said poutine experience is inevitable in his industry. “I’m a Canadian; every restaurant I’ve worked at has poutine,” Asselstine said.

Sharing anecdotes of late-night poutine runs and off-site delivery, Asselstine added that poutine is an option at Megalos despite not being formally on the menu.

“You make it but you don’t necessarily have to offer it,” he said. “People expect it to be there.”

Smoke’s poutine, option two, stole the top spot in Asselstine’s blind taste test. Beating out Poutine Place’s dish by only one point, Asselstine attributed his high grade to the better gravy.

Coming in second, Asselstine preferred Poutine Place’s sticky gravy which was well-distributed in each forkful. Between calculated bites, Asselstine looked up to say Poutine’s Place’s fries were his favourite.

Despite being his go-to poutine spot before the blind taste-testing, Bubba’s poutine ranked number three.

Bubba’s

Consistency: 3
Fries: 2
Gravy: 4
Curds: 2
Overall taste: 4

TOTAL: 15

Poutine Place

Consistency: 4
Fries: 4
Gravy: 3 Curds: 4
Overall taste: 3
TOTAL: 18

Smoke’s

Consistency: 3
Fries: 4
Gravy: 4
Curds: 4
Overall taste: 4
TOTAL: 19

—Terra-Ann Arnone

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