The Phelan Feud

The Bitter Struggle for Control
of a Great Canadian Food Empire

Award-Wining Journalist Stephen Kimber’s The Phelan Feud
Delivers A Distinctly Canadian Succession War

May 6, 2024 – TORONTO – Most Canadians have consumed a meal from the kitchens of Cara Operations over its century-plus mission of catering to hungry people on the go. Cara was a company that grew up in parallel with our national appetite for fast comfort food, but until now, only a handful of insiders were privy to the details of the fierce battle for control of its culinary-quick empire, or the intimate story of the family who owned it— the Phelans.

Award-winning journalist Stephen Kimber takes readers behind the scenes of an epic family feud inside the Phelan clan—one of Canada’s wealthiest families—who over three generations built and ran Cara and its many popular restaurant chains, including Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet.

Trouble began when the family patriarch Paul James Phelan—who could often be seen dining at his favourite haunt, the Swiss Chalet on Toronto’s Bloor St. West—refused to yield control to the next generation. What followed pitted the heir-apparent brother against his sisters, forcing a bitter power struggle that played out in boardrooms, courtrooms, and high-society living rooms. Readers will be surprised to learn who won this generational war.

The Phelan Feud is a must read for anyone navigating the challenges of company succession­—and survival—or for owners and investors in family-run businesses, concerned with wealth management. This is a distinctly Canadian, real-life version of HBO’s Succession, and a fitting companion to the Rogers-family showdown that captivated audiences around the country.

The Cara empire had humble origins dating to 1859 when Thomas Patrick Phelan, a “shoestring entrepreneur,” started selling apples and newspapers to passengers on the Niagara steamboats. Over a century later it had transformed into one of Canada’s most successful family business empires, and the Phelan family prospered, frequently ranked on the Financial Post’s list of Canada’s richest families.

At its height, as the family that ruled Cara was in danger of running it off the rails, the company was catering to Via Rail and to more than 60 airlines around the world, including Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz, British Airways, Air France and Air China. It also served tens of thousands of Canadians at its Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet chains.

For 20 years, though, from the early eighties to the early 2000s, the Phelan siblings were locked in a dramatic succession showdown that threatened the very existence of Cara. Award-winning writer and Order of Nova Scotia recipient Kimber provides an intimate tour of the legal, psychological and emotional skirmishes in corporate boardrooms, yacht clubs, country estates and mansions.

Through incisive interviews and newly accessed archival materials, he delivers the gritty and raucous details of the tense negotiations inside a ruling Canadian family that became the toast of high society, even as greed, confusion and addiction issues destroyed family civility. 

The Canadian myth tells us that family-owned businesses are the “backbone” of our economy, with families owning or controlling 80% of all businesses in the country. But the reality is that only 30% of family businesses survive through the second generation, and only 10% make it beyond the third.

The Phelan Feud offers an inside look, as well as lessons learned, from the battle inside one of Canada’s most prosperous families. It serves up a succession story that vividly outlines how CEOs can endanger their company by favouring children over seasoned executives. In this case, the women of the family banded together to fight their brother for control of the family company and fortune.

The Phelan Feud: The Bitter Struggle for Control of a Great Canadian Food Empire by Stephen Kimber will be released on June 6, 2024, by Barlow Books.

What others are saying about The Phelan Feud:

“When it comes to family squabbles, infighting, and legal tangling, Canada’s Phelan family stands with the best, and worst. Stephen Kimber’s fascinating account of two sisters, Gail and Rose, and their fight to gain control of a vast food business that includes Wendy’s, Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, and several smaller chains is detective journalism at its best. A truly great read.”

  • Roy MacGregor, author of over 50 books, including ‘Home Team’ and ‘Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People.’

“If you thought Logan Roy’s family fought in HBO’s ‘Succession,’; wait ’til you read The Phelan Feud. In this tell-all book, Stephen Kimber skillfully investigates the behind-the-scenes battles among the Phelan clan.”

  • Rod McQueen, author of 20 books, including ‘The Eatons: The Rise and Fall Of Canada’s Royal Family.’

“Stephen Kimber has been a gifted and sure hand in Canadian letters for as long as I can remember. This time, Kimber directs his talent for storytelling and first-rate reporting at a moneyed brood and its bizarre, sad intergenerational dramas.”

  • Howard Green, author of ‘Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy.’

Start with a lucrative family business. Add a stubborn patriarch with an alcohol problem and old-fashioned attitudes towards his adult children. Mix in an assortment of contentious, bloody-minded siblings, a welter of high-priced lawyers and advisers, a twist of lies and betrayals and back-stabbings, and you’ve got The Phelan Feud – Stephen Kimber’s profoundly Canadian rejoinder to the hit TV-series Succession.

  • Ken McGoogan, author of SHADOWS OF TYRANNY: Warnings about Trumpism from the Era of Hitler and Stalin