– Words Joanne Peters Photography Lia Crowe
It might come as a surprise to some to see Emad Yacoub at Riley’s Fish & Steak, rolling up his sleeves to shuck fresh oysters on a blazingly sunny weekday afternoon. He’s scrutinizing the seafood display loaded with lobster, Dungeness crab, king crab, and more, his back to a magnificent wine wall, the cruise ships across the street from the sumptuous eatery forming a postcard-perfect backdrop.
The process of forcing open so many bivalve mollusks to reveal the delicate meat inside just isn’t the kind of repetitive task you’d expect from the co-founder, president and CEO of Glowbal Restaurant Group, one of the most successful dining companies in Vancouver, perhaps Canada, with its sights set on $100 million in revenue for 2024.
This, however, is very much how Emad runs things: literally hands-on. When he’s not sourcing out new locations for any number of brands he has brewing in his brain, he’s expertly managing cash flow, checking measurements with tradespeople, connecting with chefs about menus at the group’s nine current establishments, mentoring staff members or stopping by guests’ tables to chat. He’s the enviable kind of guy who might routinely put in 12-hour days but never feels like he’s working.
Emad says his passion for hospitality goes back to his roots in Cairo. He remembers a group trip he went on in Egypt years ago, spending a few days on boat called a felucca, floating down the Nile, stopping to visit temples along the way. On one of the excursions, in a remote village, the tour leader knocked on the door of a humble house without any electricity and asked if they could have some mint tea. The woman of the household was thrilled, immediately ushering people in while saying, “welcome, welcome, welcome!” Everyone sat down on the floor and enjoyed a cup of the hot herbal drink together.
“This is Egypt: everybody opens their houses for strangers. That’s hospitality. It put a smile on my face. That’s the passion.”
Emad came to Canada with his parents when he was 19 after his third year of university, where he studied accounting, the move allowing him to avoid conscription. He didn’t speak a word of English. He first lived in Toronto and landed a job at Harbour Castle Hilton as a kitchen helper; he remembers peeling and squeezing oranges for juice, determined to pick up speed day after day. He was recognized for his hard work and went on to become chef de cuisine at the renowned King Edward Hotel. Later, he was recruited by Vancouver’s Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House, where he worked for a few years before starting in on his empire.
Today, Glowbal Restaurant Group’s portfolio consists of Glowbal (the first, which opened in 2002), Trattoria, Italian Kitchen, Black + Blue Vancouver, The Roof, Five Sails, Coast, and Riley’s. Then there’s its newest hot spot, the recently opened Black + Blue Toronto, in the heart of the city’s financial district. It’s early days yet, but things at the 9,000-square-foot restaurant with 2,000-square-foot patio are going phenomenally well, Emad says.
With a staff of about 1,400, Glowbal Restaurant Group makes a point of taking part in various charitable efforts; during the pandemic, for instance, it donated more than 100,000 meals through its Ten Days of Glowbal Giving program. Emad also believes in rewarding long-time, loyal leaders with “a piece of the action,” making them part owners; he owns 55 per cent of the company, the rest is divided among the select others.
“I used to make four bucks an hour when I came to Canada. As long as I have money in my pocket I’m happy,” he says. “I have incredibly loyal partners, bartenders, cooks, junior managers… We all get along so, so well. We don’t question each other.”
Emad, who has children aged 19 and 17 and a set of twins who are nearly three years old, has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. He was recently in Miami scouting out locations.
“I really believe we would love to open in the States,” he says. “We have the secret sauce. We know how to run on a very slim margin, and everything is more expensive in Canada. A good Canadian restaurant group would do extremely well there. I’m going to Tokyo for five days—it has such great food and great restaurants. Maybe I’ll find a couple people to recruit. I’m always looking.
“The goal of the company has always been: Can we do it better every day?” he says. “Better quality food, better quality service…We work harder to make it better. I love the operation of plans—how to design a restaurant, negotiate a lease, look at whether ideas will work or not, buildouts…It’s never been about the money. If it would have been about the money, I would stay with a single concept and open it other places every day. I have three or four deals I was just negotiating today. And I love being on the floor. I love everything about it.”