New Owners Of Famous Eatery Carry On 50 Years Of Tradition

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Peters’ Drive-In, Calgary

Peters’ Drive-In is something of a Calgary landmark, beloved by both locals and tourists. Founded by Gus Pieters in 1962, the drive-in is a year-round destination that’s especially popular in the summer, when crowds will gather around the windows to wait in line for burgers and milkshakes. Joanne Rowe, a former corporate securities lawyer, and her husband, Stephen Hayden, at one time an investment banker, often said that if given the chance, they’d buy the popular burger joint. And in 2005, while picking up burgers for a United Way charity event, Hayden joked with Pieters that he and Rowe were planning on buying his business one day. “Gus looked at him and said, ‘Are you serious?’ and Stephen said, ‘Absolutely,’” says Rowe. The transaction took some time to hammer out – it’s difficult to give up a business after 40 years – but Rowe says they haven’t looked back since making the purchase.

“I think the biggest thing we wanted to ensure was that Gus was comfortable with us, and equally important, we wanted to be comfortable with the business we were buying,” says Rowe.

In fact, Pieters had previously refused to sell the business to prospective buyers when he felt they wouldn’t treat his staff with respect. After the sale to Rowe and Hayden, Pieters remained involved in the operation of the restaurant, helping to guide it until his death in 2008, at the age of 77. Rowe says she and her husband both have some restaurant experience from their university days, but they’ve also received a lot of guidance from Peters’ employees, many of whom have long histories with the eatery. “When you have a core staff of people who have been here for 25 or 30 years, these are people who have expertise,” she says. “They know what they’re doing, and I looked at that as an asset.” The new owners also embraced the opportunity to learn their new business’s culture, rather than coming in with their own expectations of how things should operate.

In fact, not much has changed at Peters’ since Rowe and Hayden took over the operation almost 10 years ago. The menu is virtually unchanged from when it opened in 1962. Rowe says the only changes they made to the food were replacing the processed cheese the restaurant once used with real Canadian cheddar and making their fries fresh to order rather than bringing them in frozen. Inside the restaurant, they made more changes, upgrading the milkshake machines, freezers and some other equipment to improve efficiency and safety. “The mantra was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” says Rowe. “Anything we’ve done has always been with a goal of improving the quality and making it a fresher product.” That’s not just for simplicity’s sake, either. Rowe says the couple also feels it’s important to preserve Peters’ long history and reputation. “We take it very seriously. When you take over a business that’s been around since 1962, you have a lot of loyal customers. We recognize that customers have certain expectations, so our goal is always to meet or exceed those expectations. We wanted to keep on the tradition that Gus had here.”

Parting Advice

  1. The backgrounder
    Do your research and know the history and reputation of the business you’re looking to buy. Rowe says she and her husband chose Peters’ Drive-In largely because of its reputation and popularity.
  2. Absorb, don’t conquer
    During an acquisition, some companies are tempted to impose their culture on the new business. Make an effort to find out what the business does well and incorporate those things into the entire business.
  3. Absorb, part two
    When buying a business, the current employees can be one of your greatest assets. Listen to their ideas, suggestions and concerns to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.

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