“Sometimes you have to shrink in order to grow,” says Ian Sorbie, president of Il Fornello group of restaurants.
Il Fornello started in 1986 as a one off restaurant on Bloor St. near Bathurst on the edges of downtown Toronto. The idea came from a reconnaissance visit to New York City. Sorbie , who was running a family financed café in Toronto’s east end at the time, was looking to expand. After his first bite of New York style wood oven baked pizza, he thought he had found a winner. And he was right.
His first restaurant prospered, so Sorbie opened a second Il Fornello location in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto in 1988. Expansion continued at a great rate, so by the time the company hit its peak in the mid 1990s Sorbie was juggling 10 corporate and franchise restaurants, all in the same city.
Then the company started to drop some of the balls. The problems mounted slowly, and came at him from all directions Sorbie says. It wasn't just one thing, but a number of disparate and unconnected problems that conspired against the franchise over the course of several years from 2000 to 2008. The concentration of locations in one city was a problem. Being seen and identified as a franchise operation wasn't so hip, says Sorbie: “The demographic changed in the area of some of our restaurants, and sales began to slip,” he recalls: “We were locked into leases at locations that were losing us a lot of money.” At a point, Sorbie says, he felt like he was facing a perfect storm. “So we tightened our belts and reorganized and restructured” he says: “We had to make some hard decisions”.
(Photo: Jason Chow)
Cutting back was the hardest decision, Sorbie says. “It required a lot of soul searching about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to jettison.” First to go were the money losing operations.
Then the company developed a new look, designing everything to reflect lessons learned from more than twenty years of experience. The brand had weathered the perfect storm well enough that it wasn't hard to find new backers, Sorbie says. “We were constantly asked about investing and franchising opportunities, so we felt our best route was to put together a really strong new franchise package, spend our money on great design, and find a location where we could set up a prototype, and show what we really could do.”
The third thing to go was the exclusive focus on downtown Toronto. Sorbie looked further afield for a place to plant the prototype. “We thought the suburbs was really the place to go,” he says. With their problems behind them and a clear path ahead, Il Fornello has begun to grow again. “Last May it all came together with the opening of our Ajax location,” says Sorbie. (Ajax is about 25 kilometres east of Toronto.) “It has the new look, a very iconic building, the new look and the same high quality food.” Plans are in the works for locations in Barrie, Ont. and Ottawa.
It’s been a bumpy road getting to Ajax Sorbie says, but some important lessons have been learned along the way. “A lot of franchises want to get as big as they can as fast as they can and we know that is a really big mistake, Sorbie says. Our goal is not to grow big, fast. Our goal is to grow at a pace where we can really support the people who open our franchises so they can succeed.”