The famously frank restaurant owner and cocktail master behind Toronto’s Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar and Rhum Bar says her reputation says more about the bros-club nature of the industry then it does about her. Here, Jen Agg – speaking as part of the Table Talk event at the Design Exchange in Toronto on Wednesday – shares some of the secrets to her success (and why even Justin Timberlake waits for a table)
Hype is not your friend
I have learned that it’s dangerous to believe your own hype. When the Black Hoof took off, everything happened so quickly. It was just this case of perfect timing where social media was becoming huge and cocktail culture was happening and it just exploded. All of a sudden I was living in this bubble and thinking that it was the most important thing. I would literally have my husband catching me up on world events, like – oh yeah, there’s a war going on. I can’t emphasize how much [the level of celebrity I experienced] was just a pinprick in terms of what other people experience, but for me, for a restaurant in Toronto, it was pretty crazy. All of a sudden there were all of these customers and journalists saying that what I did was soooo important. People were freaking out about something they shouldn’t be freaking out about – it’s food and drink. I definitely felt invincible and untouchable, which isn’t a good thing. It was a year of living in this state of delusion and I came out of it realizing that you’ve got to be humble. Thank God I had my husband to ground me.
You can’t teach personality
There is this idea that, as a manager, and particularly in the restaurant industry, that you’re not supposed to be friends with your staff. I think that’s really silly. I love all my staff like family. I’m not saying work is supposed to be a party or anything, but it can be fun. I’ve learned that the best way to have a staff that respects your authority is to hire the right people. That’s the secret. I don’t hire people who don’t fit in. Instead of typical interviews I have [prospective hires] come in and work a shift. I’m not looking for a superstar. I would so much rather hire somebody who’s smart, who makes me laugh, who is an it-getter. If you’re smart, I can teach pretty much anything that we do at the restaurant. Personality over skills any day. You can’t teach personality.
The perils of partnership
In terms of learning from mistakes, I would never, ever again give half of a business that is my concept to somebody that I didn’t know [Agg previously owned 50 per cent of The Black Hoof and now owns 100]. I had to spend a lot of money to buy my business back. I’m not against going into future partnerships, but only with people that I know and trust. That was by far the biggest mistake I ever made. I did learn a lot from the experience, though, in terms of the control I wanted to have and the environment I wanted to foster. It is nice to just be able to make the decisions without having to [work] through this push and pull all the time.
Restaurants are like high-school boys
People wait in line at my restaurant, whether they are some random diner or a big-deal celebrity. It would be against everything that I believe in to start [giving out tables according to status]. I think Justin Timberlake waited in line. We took his cellphone or the cell of someone who he was with and we called him when a table was ready. Of course it’s nice to get the recognition that comes with having celebrities want to come to the Hoof, and particularly to be recognized by famous chefs, but the [no reservations, no exceptions] table policy has always been part of how we run the restaurant, and it works. It’s like that first boyfriend who is always calling and being so available and you’re like, no thanks. You like the guy who’s giving you the cold shoulder. It’s not like this is a plan we made or anything that calculated, but having observed it over the years, I think that people sort of like the abuse. It requires a certain level of confidence.
Make your partner your priority
Every morning my husband and I will go to Sam James coffee shop. I will have a tea, Roland will have a cappuccino and we just talk for as long as possible, depending on the day. It’s time that we get to spend together and we’ll just talk about what happened the night before, philosophy, life, the world, how much we love each other and everything else. It’s so important to spend that time and to keep track of the people in your life, who you care about. The restaurant industry isn’t necessarily kind to relationships. It will suck you in. It can become heroin. You just keep shooting up more and more and more. It will take all of your attention all of the time if you let it. I don’t. I am so lucky to have found someone who is my support system and who deals with all of my crap. Maintaining that is my priority.
I’m not a lady bartender!
One thing that I find so ridiculous is these bartending competitions that are “just for ladies.” Bartending isn’t a physical sport. Why are we dividing it according to gender? Being a woman in this industry is incredibly challenging. I say that, acknowledging that I have a strong sense of self and a hugely supportive partner. If I had a weaker personality, I don’t know how I would survive the awful things that people say and that get back to me. A lot of people just aren’t comfortable with a woman who has these traditionally “male” qualities – strong leadership, decisiveness, chasing your vision. Dave [McMillan] from Joe Beef as a good example. We both say what we think. Men get heralded for that sort of behaviour and women get crucified for it. It drives me crazy. And it’s all the time. Just the other day we had a workman coming into Cocktail Bar [which Agg also owns] and he deferred to [my employee] Dave. I was standing right there, I was the one giving instructions in an authoritative way and still this guy assumes that Dave must be the boss. It makes me so angry, but it also motivates me. I want to help women in this industry. I am so sick of the bros club.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.