Couple brings restaurant back from the brink

Brie and Steele Leacock hold the awards they’ve earned as new owners of East Side Mario’s. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson  

In two short years, a local couple has transformed a struggling East Side Mario’s franchise into a big winner.

Brie and Steele Leacock earned the title of national Franchisee of the Year for 2015, which recognizes the London Road eatery as the best of 86 East Side Mario’s in Canada.

The restaurant was also one of 16 to win a Brand of Excellence Award for 2015, an honour based on internal audits that measure everything from culinary standards to service and cleanliness.

“We were so excited when we heard,” said Brie. “It’s been a lot of hard work but this East Side Mario’s has a whole new life.”

Just a few years ago, the 25-year-old restaurant was up for sale and at risk of being shut down by corporate head office.

“Let’s just say it was tired,” explained Brie.

The former owner lived out-of-town, food quality was inconsistent, and the restaurant was sorely in need of new kitchen equipment, she said.

“The staff didn’t have the tools to do their jobs. We were told there often weren’t enough dishes or enough food.”

Brie, 29, has worked in the food industry from the age of 14. She grew up in Arkona and took her first job at Godfathers Pizza in Forest.

Husband, Steele, 35, was raised on a farm near Grand Bend. His background in marketing and business complements his wife’s knowledge of the restaurant industry.

The couple began scouting around for a restaurant of their own in 2012.

When they saw East Side Mario’s was on the market for an extended period, they grew interested.

“I saw it on the Internet and the price had been lowered on this location,” said Steele.

Brie’s family had brought her there regularly while growing up and she’d loved it as a kid. Before making an offer, she and Steele went for dinner and realized much work was needed to bring it up to standard.

“I could see how difficult it was going to be but knew we could do it,” Steele said. “If we didn’t buy it, they would have shut it down.”

After a rigorous vetting, interviews with East Side Mario’s executives and aptitude tests, the Leacocks were approved as franchisees in October of 2013.

They set to work cleaning the place up, literally scrubbing down the walls, chandeliers and kitchen. With the help of family, they painted and repaired equipment.

About 38 staff was kept on from the previous ownership. A few left and were replaced.  As business improved, more were hired and East Side Mario’s now employs 50 people.

“Word of mouth is spreading that we are here now and that we care,” said Brie. “Our food has to be consistently up to standard. Sales are up 30%.”

And the local restaurant with the Italian family theme is tracking to be best in Canada again, earning the highest marks in all audits so far this year.

“We’re very happy about this,” she said. “This store had never even passed an audit before we took over.”

Just last week, the Leacocks learned their restaurant will be one of four in Canada used to test new menu items. Their kitchen managers will be trained in Toronto to prepare the new items and Sarnians will be the first to sample them.

“It means Sarnia gets to choose East Side’s new summer menu,” said Brie.

East Side Mario’s is located at 1337 London Rd. Call 519-542-7789 for details.

Got an interesting business story?  Contact Cathy Dobson at cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca or 226-932-0985.