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Fries get a cheesy new twist from Canada

Move over, maple syrup! A new Canadian food export is stepping into the limelight.

Long a French Canadian staple, poutine (pronounced "pooh-teen") is beginning to gain traction in the U.S. More restaurants such as casual dining chain Red Robin and Smoke's Poutinerie sell the dish, which typically consists of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds.

Gravy, garlic and cheese curds

Smoke’s Poutinerie’s Bacon Poutine
Photo: Geoff Kowalchuk
Smoke’s Poutinerie’s Bacon Poutine

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, said the item is just now starting to go mainstream since Red Robin debuted it recently.

"When you see a brand like Red Robin pick it up, that's a great indication that the trend has become mainstream. When you see a brand like McDonald's pick it up, it's over," Tristano said.

Brands like Red Robin have helped fuel a rapid rise in poutine offerings in the U.S. In the second quarter, there were 52 of those dishes on various menus, up from just six three years ago in the same period, according to Technomic. It's also surging in Canada—more than tripling to 730 in the second quarter, from 204 in the same period in 2012.

With the dish proliferating in restaurants, poutine comes in numerous incarnations. Red Robin's version consists of steak fries covered in gravy, garlic aioli, sautéed mushrooms and fried cheese curds.

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Amy Woolen, the chain's director of field and franchise marketing, said the fries performed significantly better than its benchmark norms in testing.

As it brings poutine to its American audience, it is not choosing to downplay the curds. In fact, it is highlighting them in promotional material and selling them separately as a standalone appetizer.

"We're definitely not shying away from the cheese curds; we love them," said Woolen during a phone interview.

Loaded and spicy

Canada-based chain Smoke's Poutinerie is taking a different tactic by branding the dish as loaded fries to American audiences.

"They don't know what poutine is. They definitely know what loaded fries are," said founder and CEO Ryan Smolkin during a phone interview.

Smoke's has expanded quickly in its home country. Since launching in 2009, it has opened more than 100 units in Canada and expanded south to the U.S. in December. It now has two locations in the U.S., but plans to open 800 locations in the next five years there.

Its core demo group is 18 to 25. Units are primarily in university towns, urban centers and nontraditional locations such as sports arenas. Its strategy so far has been "going where the target is or where they go, where they get the munchies," Smolkin said.

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As poutine migrates south, Tristano says restaurants are putting a higher-end spin on it along with a spicier one.

"I think in Canada it's been traditionally a more bland item. I think here you're starting to see the introduction of spicy flavors that are on trend with American customers," Tristano said.

As for highlighting curds to an American audience, Tristano does not think brands will hesitate.

"It probably inspires curiosity," he added.