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Richard Jaffray at Thursday's Top 100 event

Jaffray sits down to talk success, bad restaurant names and Cactus Club's march eastwards

What's in Cactus Club's secret sauce?

Real estate and a happy staff, according to chain's founder in a live interview with Canada Wide Media chair Peter Legge at the 26th annual BCBusiness Top 100 luncheon.

In a 90-minute conversation before an audience of 1,100, Jaffray offered a look inside the West Coast culinary empire, which has grown from a shack in North Vancouver to 27 restaurants in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, with 3,700 employees.

His first restaurant, Cafe Cucamongas (named after the city of Rancho Cucamonga, California) was launched in 1986 at the corner of Broadway and Laurel where he learned that he "had to do anything to hustle to get people into the restaurant," which included installing a giant palm tree in a car outside his restaurant. Two years later, at age 25, he opened another restaurant that he named Cactus Club after a neon cactus he planned to install in the restaurant.

Over the next two decades, he opened up restaurants around the Lower Mainland and then, in the mid-'90s, decided to make the jump to Alberta. That, he says, became his worst decision. In an "overly aggressive" expansion, he opened four restaurants in Edmonton and Calgary in one year. "Things didn't go as well as planned," he says. The realization came when he got a call from his accountant who informed him that he didn't have enough money to make payroll. It hit him, he said, that "the party was over."

It would be a decade before he expanded east again. And by 2008, when he was preparing to open an expensive flagship on Burrard Street in Vancouver, Cactus Club hired local celebrity chef Rob Feenie. He credits that as the best decision he ever made (along with becoming an entrepreneur). The ensuing media attention laid the way for more high-profile locations.

All the way, he credits his sense of hospitality to his mother—a teacher who he calls the "best host ever"—and mining and film mogul Frank Giustra, "one of the smartest people I've ever met," he says.

As for the future, Jaffray plans to open up to 60 restaurants across the country, first in Toronto and Kelowna—both under construction. He estimates Cactus Club has reached just 25 per cent of its growth potential in Canada—with plans for a minimum of 20 restaurants in Ontario. And then there's always America. "If you're not expanding, you're shrinking," he says. "I don't think we'll ever be done."