What Earls dropping Alberta beef says about Alberta

Janet Brown on Earls' decision to drop Alberta beef — what it says about a changing market strategy, and change in who we are.

Cultures shift. So do business models.

Earls announced on Tuesday that they would be the first restaurant chain in North America to serve Certified Humane beef. (Earls)

When I moved to Calgary in 2000, I had never heard of Earls. But I quickly learned about this enduring Alberta institution, where big-time business deals were regularly negotiated over plates of chili chicken.

On any given Friday at 5 p.m., the bar at Earls Tin Palace on 4th Street in Mission was packed with a veritable who's who of Calgary's business elite. If you wanted to rub shoulders with the city's most prominent oil executives, stock brokers, real estate moguls and political movers and shakers, Earls was the place to be.

Through each boom and bust cycle, Earls flourished in Calgary, in no small part because the city's elite remained such loyal customers. When Earls Tin Palace was forced to close for six months following the 2013 flood, Calgary's hoi polloi flocked to the reopening.

So, you can imagine how appalled these loyal customers were when Earls announced it was switching from Alberta beef to 'Certified Humane' beef from Kansas.

Earls was essentially saying Alberta beef is not humane enough.

Customers flocked to the re-opening of Earls Tin Palace after the 2013 flood. (CBC)

How could a loyal Albertan possibly tolerate such an insult to one of the province's core industries? How could Earls put its most loyal customers in such a position? Does Earls no longer value our business?

In a matter of hours, #BoycottEarls started trending, and hundreds of Calgarians took to social media to vow they would never darken Earls' doorstep again.

Tim Hortons parallel

You might recall that a similar brouhaha erupted in June 2015 after Tim Hortons decided to pull some Enbridge commercials from their in-store advertising screens, because some customers had complained about Enbridge's involvement in the Northern Gateway pipeline. But #BoycottTims didn't really put a dent in the company's business.

Earls' decision to change beef suppliers has nothing to do with public health. It's merely a calculated marketing strategy- Janet Brown

This new anti-Earls campaign actually reminds me more of a much earlier decision Tim Hortons made to shake-up its business model.

In the 1980s, Tim Hortons made the decision to go smoke-free.

At that time, the writing was on the wall, and it was just a matter of time before the law was going to require all restaurants to be smoke-free. But Tim Hortons made a calculated decision to make this switch long before they had to.

At that time, a typical Tims was a very smoky establishment, and its most loyal customers were people who couldn't fathom the idea of not having a cigarette with their coffee and donut.

Many people were convinced Tim Hortons would be out of business in a year. After all, how could a business alienate its most loyal customers and expect to remain open?

What Tim Hortons realized was that for every smoker occupying a stool at the counter, there were three non-smokers avoiding Tim Hortons because they couldn't stand the second-hand smoke.

The world was changing, and Tim Hortons accurately anticipated the change. This set the stage for the market domination Tim Hortons enjoys today.

Calculated strategy

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to equate Alberta beef with second-hand smoke.

All beef served at Earls will come from Creekstone Ranch in Kansas. (Earls)

I think Earls' decision to change beef suppliers has nothing to do with public health. It's merely a calculated marketing strategy — an appeal to the growing segment of consumers who want to feel like they are making healthier and more ethical choices.

After all, there is no proof that the 'Certified Humane' standards set by American-based Humane Farm Animal Care are any safer or healthier than those set by Health Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Earls saw how sales at restaurants like A&W spiked after they started talking about what's not in their hamburgers. And Earls is gambling that the attention they'll gain by being the first North American restaurant chain to jump on the Certified Humane bandwagon will give them a similar boost in sales.

Now, Earls likely didn't anticipate the backlash in Alberta was going to be quite as intense as it has been. But it probably won't cause them to reverse their decision either.

That's because someone in the marketing department at Earls has run the numbers. And they're expecting that for every staunch supporter of the Alberta beef industry they lose in Calgary, they're going to gain three or four earnest do-gooders in Vancouver. 

A shift in market, a shift in identity

Three short years ago, oil was $100 a barrel, the loonie was at par with the U.S. dollar, the Prime Minster was a Conservative from Calgary, the Premier was a Conservative from Calgary, and the service industry was kowtowing to the whims of Calgary's business elite.

Experts say it's a mistake to assume Alberta ranchers are less humane in their practices simply because they are not certified. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Today, oil is around $40 a barrel, the Canadian dollar is worth about 80 cents, the Prime Minister is a Liberal from Montreal, and the Premier is a New Democrat from Edmonton.

When the good times came crashing down, they crashed quickly. For those who prospered the most in the boom times, it's been hard to come to terms with the fact that their glory days may be behind them.

In the whole scheme of things, Earls switching to U.S. beef isn't the worst misfortune to befall Calgary. But it may just be the final indignity for those good ol' boys who have always been loyal Earls customers.

In a not so subtle way, Earls is trying to tell them it's time to vacate their favourite booth and make way for a new group of people.

The rugged individualism, provincial patriotism, and pro-business mindset that were once the hallmark of Alberta values are being replaced by a growing sense of collectivism, globalism and mistrust of big business and institutions.

Earls senses that its brand image and core customer base are too closely aligned with this old way of thinking.

Regardless of whether Earls is embracing Certified Humane for the right reasons, or whether this gamble will pay off, the reality is that that values and culture change, and businesses must try to adapt.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Janet Brown

Freelance contributor

Janet Brown is a longtime political commentator and pollster in Alberta.