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Cara Operations Limited | Operations | History

Cara Operations Limited

Cara Operations Limited is a leading food service company in Canada. Cara has both the largest number of full-service restaurants in Canada. A family-owned enterprise with a history beginning in 1883, the Company employs approximately 26,000 Canadians in its corporate and franchised restaurant locations.

Cara’s operations span the country and include the revered Swiss Chalet and Harvey’s brands. Though long in history, the Company keeps up to pace with conveniences and innovations such as location drive-thrus, wireless handheld guest payment technologies, online take-out ordering, multi-branded gift cards, and twinning of brands in single locations.

Through the acquisition of new businesses and the sale of existing businesses over many years, Cara has evolved to become a more focused enterprise. The Company is developing its current portfolio of leading restaurant brands to ensure its continuing success, backed by an exceptional team of people.


Swiss Chalet

Canada’s leading full-service restaurant in the family/casual dining segment specializing in rotisserie chicken made from fresh, never-frozen chicken, and also renowned for its barbecued ribs, fresh-cut fries and special dipping sauce. Swiss Chalet opened its first restaurant in 1954 with rotisserie chicken as the only entrée. The chain’s “fall-off-the-bone” barbecued ribs joined the menu in the 1980s. There are now approximately 200 Swiss Chalet locations across Canada.

In 1991 Cara launched the Cara Call Centre, which serves primarily the Swiss Chalet brand by receiving and processing delivery and call ahead requests. The call centre processes more than four million calls annually utilizing cutting edge technology.


Canada’s home-grown national hamburger chain, acknowledged as the leader in best-tasting hamburgers. Burgers are charbroiled on a flame grille and topped with fresh garnishes, chosen by customers and applied before their eyes. Harvey’s has nearly 300 outlets across the country and grew from a single location started in 1959. In numerous places Harvey’s outlets are twinned with Swiss Chalet locations.

In May, 2009 Harvey’s hosted its first national Hamburger Day to celebrate its 50th anniversary and to thank customers for their loyalty over the years.

Kelsey’s Neighbourhood Bar & Grill

Originator of and a leader in Canada’s casual dining segment — a segment created to bridge the gap between quick service restaurants and fine dining establishments. Kelsey’s features a full menu with innovative menu choices appealing to a variety of tastes and budgets. This is combined with Kelsey’s “No Problem” service and excellent value in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere surrounding a central bar area.

In Canada there are approximately 120 Kelsey’s restaurants, found in convenient neighbourhood locations close to shopping, entertainment and commercial centres so as to serve both a daytime working clientele and an evening residential clientele. The Kelsey’s restaurant concept first made its appearance in 1978.

Montana's Cookhouse

A different take on casual dining, focusing on young families, this chain features rotisserie chicken, hickory-smoked ribs, grilled sirloin steaks, pasta dishes and fresh home-style favourites served with a genuine welcome in a unique wilderness lodge-like setting. The first Montana’s concept restaurant was launched in 1995, and more than 85 have now been established across Canada.

Milestone’s Grill + Bar

A leader in the casual upscale dining sector in Canada, providing familiar foods and beverages with globally-inspired touches in a stylish, comfortable and welcoming environment with genuine and knowledgeable service. Restaurants serve lunch, brunch and dinner and feature an active bar. There are more than 35 Milestone’s restaurants in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, starting from a single location in Vancouver’s English Bay in 1989.

True to its name, Milestone’s caters to the special occasions in the lives of its guests with features such as Wednesday Date Night and its “Dinner for 2 for $50” menu.

In the Autumn of 2013 the Prime Restaurants group of dining establishments and pubs was welcomed to Cara. As a result, the following well-known names joined the Cara fold.

East Side Mario's

High quality pastas and pizzas plus other local favourites, all served in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Geared to fun family dining, restaurants offer good value, including all-you-can-eat dishes.

The East Side Mario’s concept began with a location in the State of Florida, where Prime Restaurants’ predecessor company had also been opening restaurants under the Pat and Mario’s banner. East Side Mario’s was then imported to Canada while the East Side Mario’s business in the U.S. continued to develop and was eventually sold. In Canada, the chain has grown to more than 100 locations across the country.


Casey’s locations serve an adult clientele looking for favourite dishes and new flavours at reasonable prices in a relaxed, casual setting. They also appeal to younger adults for whom the bars at each location are the prime attraction.

Since its launch in 1980, the Casey’s chain has evolved from roadhouse to bar and grill format, to diner house, and back to bar and grill. There are approximately 25 Casey’s locations in Ontario and Québec.

The Irish Pubs

Since 1996 the Prime Restaurants group has been operating Irish pubs under a number of names, which currently comprise Fionn MacCool’s, D’Arcy McGee’s, Paddy Flaherty’s and Tir nan Óg. Offering a more upscale food and beverage alternative to the local bar, the Prime pubs appeal to the adult guest looking for dining at a higher level in a sophisticated pub environment.

Menu offerings include authentic foods based on recipes from Ireland. To top off the experience is traditional Celtic and Canadian East Coast live entertainment. There are now more than 25 Prime pubs in Ontario and Alberta.

Bier Markt

Bier Markt is a Belgian-style brasserie featuring a huge choice of imported beers, premium foods including Belgian-inspired menu specialties, and locations which target its primary clientele of young urban professionals with discerning tastes.

The first Bier Markt location was opened in the center of Toronto in 1999. Three more Toronto locations followed a decade later.


Cara Operations Limited is the successor organization to Canada Railway News Company, which was founded in 1883 by T.P. Phelan. The Company started as a concessionaire, selling basic food and news items to passengers on the steamers which followed routes on Lake Ontario. This business soon expanded to trains, first in the form of food and news agent services aboard the trains, and then to fixed restaurant and news stand operations at railway terminals. The Company’s growth was fuelled by the rapid development of rail passenger traffic in Canada in the years around the beginning of the 20th Century.

By 1902, when the Company moved its head office from Montreal to Toronto, the Company was extending its operations from the Maritimes to the Pacific Ocean. These operations initially comprised food and news services for train and boat passengers, then was developed to include the operation of resort hotels for passengers.

As the century progressed, passenger rail travel reached its peak and began a slow decline. The Company, with approximately 100 branches in 70 different locations in the country by the beginning of the Second World War, faced limited growth prospects in the sector.

In the late thirties the Company was presented with an opportunity to extend its foodservices business to the nascent air travel sector when it was approached with the idea of offering limited meal/sandwich services to Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada) passengers at a number of terminal points. The Company was in an excellent position to undertake this business because of the network of branches and regional organization it had already developed across the country to meet the foodservices requirements of Canadian National Railway.

As the demand for in-flight food service increased the Company responded by moving these services from its railway restaurants and commissaries to restaurant facilities at Ministry of Transport air terminals. In 1941 Canada’s first airport terminal restaurant had opened in Montreal’s Dorval Airport and the Company had been invited to become the manager of this restaurant facility.

In 1945 the Company’s air terminal restaurants business and in-flight catering business were established as a subsidiary operation named Aero Caterers Limited. During the 1950s this subsidiary grew to the extent that its business volume surpassed that of the parent company.

During that decade and the 1960s the popularity of air travel over rail travel led to the rapid scaling down of passenger rail operations and the services which supported it in favour of infrastructure and services for air passengers. Services to air passengers however required much higher capital investment than rail passenger services and in order to meet the challenge the Company undertook a financial reorganization which consolidated control in a single owner and merged the air and rail businesses into one operation.

As part of this reorganization, in 1961 the Company changed its name to Cara Operations Limited. The name was derived from the previous name of the Company, and from the old Gaelic word meaning both “welcome” and “friend”, concepts well-suited to a company in the hospitality industry.

In 1968 Cara became publicly-traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. At this time the Company was primarily engaged in air and rail passenger catering operations and the operation of restaurants, lounges, cafeterias and fast food bars in airline and railway terminals. Its business however was starting to become more diversified with the establishment of fast food locations and restaurants in downtown office complexes and suburban shopping centres, the launch of new retail concepts in airports, and the opening of the Cara Inn near Toronto’s international airport in 1971.

In 1976 Cara acquired Winco Steak n'Burger Restaurants Limited, which owned family restaurants specializing in reasonably-priced meals focusing on steaks, roast beef and burgers. The chain was eventually phased out as popular tastes in the family dining segment of the market moved toward the bar and grill style restaurants, a development which would in time fuel further growth at the Company.

In 1977 Cara made one of the most significant purchases in its history by acquiring FoodCorp Limited, which held the Swiss Chalet and Harvey’s chains of restaurants. Cara and FoodCorp were fully amalgamated in 1984.

Kelsey’s Neighbourhood Bar & Grill joined Cara in July, 1999 when Cara acquired a 61% interest in the chain. By December, 2002 the Company had obtained full ownership of Kelsey’s by acquiring the interests in the chain held by its founder and its president. With the Kelsey’s acquisition came the Montana Cookhouse chain of restaurants.

In June, 2002 Milestone’s Grill + Bar became part of Cara when Cara and Wayne Holm, an owner of Milestone’s and a key figure in its development, acquired the chain from its other owners.

In February, 2004, after having been listed for thirty-five years on the Toronto Stock Exchange, the publicly-traded shares of Cara were acquired by the Company’s controlling shareholders and the Company became private.

In October, 2006 Cara parted with a piece of its history when it divested itself of its Airport Terminal Restaurants division.

The divestment of the Cara Airline Solutions air catering business in the Autumn of 2010 was the final step in the reorientation of the Company to focus entirely on its branded restaurant business.

Over the years, Cara has acquired and parted with other businesses as opportunities have presented themselves and Company strategy has evolved. During the past two decades Cara has owned Grand & Toy Limited, a leading Canadian office products distribution company, Summit Food Services Distribution Inc., a full-service food distributor, Beaver Foods Limited, an institutional foodservices company, and specialty coffee retailer The Second Cup Ltd. In 1997 the Company launched a Health Services Division, which by the end of that decade had become Canada’s third-largest provider of food services to hospitals and long-term care facilities. Cara divested itself of this operation in 2002 as part of the process to narrow strategic focus.

In the Autumn of 2013 Cara reached an agreement to acquire Prime Restaurants Inc. from its major shareholder and minority shareholders. The acquisition added approximately 150 locations in Canada, primarily under the well-known brands East Side Mario’s and Casey’s, and also under the brands Fionn MacCool's, D'Arcy McGee's, Paddy Flaherty's, Tir nan Óg, and Bier Markt. Prime Restaurants grew from a predecessor business run by three entrepreneurs who opened their first dining place, a Casey’s Restaurant location, in Sudbury, Ontario in 1980.

Members of the founding Phelan family have been the Company’s sole or controlling shareholders for most of its history. They continue to have a significant interest in the Company as it begins the most recent chapter of its history, marked by its return to the Toronto Stock Exchange as a publicly-traded company as of April, 2015.

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