You know what you're doing at lunch, you know which fork to use. So you watch and see what the other guy does. It's a chance to get to know him, this meal you're sharing, and you will judge him by how he eats and drinks. And how he uses his time in the hour you're together. How he gets around to his point.
And surrounding you, if you've chosen wisely, is a machine working to allow that to happen, striving to eliminate surprises and distractions, the hiccups that could derail the whole thing. After all, Ted Rogers and Jim Shaw Jr. might never have finished carving up Canada's cable market at Scaramouche if there'd been a problem with Jim Jr.'s steak.
No one knows exactly how many millions of dollars a year get spent on restaurant lunches in downtown Toronto, but if the 100,000 people who work in the two-block radius of the financial district each went someplace nice to eat twice a week-that would be a few hundred million bucks right there. Expand that to include the rest of the city's office towers, then add the business districts across Canada, and the business lunch becomes a highly competitive, billion-dollar industry.
No doubt that's why the landscape of Toronto's restaurant scene has changed so much in the past 20 years. Back in the late '80s, an executive who wanted a stellar lunch had a choice between Winston's or Hy's. There were other restaurants, but not really. Then Jump came along in 1993 and changed everything by showing how to make lunch work for the younger bloods-a little less old-boy gentility, a bit more New York hustle. Now, more and more players are invading the downtown core-the Keg's $6-million York Street flagship, the 10,500-square-foot Ki, the restaurants of SIR Corp., including Reds and Far Niente, and even an upstart named Vertical, run by a couple of guys named Joe and Gary. Because there's money to be made here, for the ones who know what they're doing. Canoe, the most prestigious of them all, pulled in $8 million last year alone.
And when there's money like that involved, there are secrets. And there are stories, like these two.
CANOE: 10:30 a.m. It's staff briefing time at the flagship of Oliver Bonacini Restaurants. Fifty-four floors up at the top of the TD Bank Tower, the morning light ekes in through the south- and west-facing windows as about a dozen servers and server assistants gather at a table near the raw bar that divides the dining room from the kitchen. In Canada, OB stands alone among restaurant groups. With six locations, including Biff's and Jump downtown, it's not the biggest-SIR Corp., for example, owns 36 restaurants-but it's arguably the most meticulously run, and the most attuned to the needs of a corporate clientele. Bonacini, a former chef, oversees mostly the aesthetic side of things, Oliver the financial. And following Oliver's dictate that their restaurants be run like proper businesses, OB has established systems and procedures covering everything down to each table's south-facing salt.
The briefings, for instance, have a dual function. As they prepare the staff for what to expect in the upcoming meal, they also reinforce OB's core values, the passions for food and service laid out in pages 7 to 25 of the company handbook. So Canoe staff will engage in discussions of the day's specials. If a new dish is being introduced, there will be a tasting. Recent staff excursions to a market or winery will be reviewed. And always, because it is a modern dining trend, cheese will be discussed. So much cheese-truffle-flecked Pecorino Tartufello, stinky Italian Valtaleggio, aged goat cheese from Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. As all this unfolds, managers watch the response. The mood at Canoe is generally lighthearted-that comes largely from the general manager, Scott Hall, a man of twinkling humour-but the degree of engagement or disengagement of the serving staff is a topic in management meetings. Today, someone notices that as Barry, the sous-chef, describes the specials, no one is taking notes. Tomorrow, perhaps as a consequence, learning and presenting the specials will be a waiter's responsibility.
One other major discussion point comes up at the briefings-the important guests expected for lunch. Some restaurants call their regulars VIPs, but at Canoe and Jump, the term is NB, for nota bene. Canoe uses OpenTable reservation software, which helps staff keep tabs on NBs and their preferences-if you've dined at Canoe three or four times and prefer the foie gras without walnut pickle, they'll know it-and before each briefing Hall gets a printout of the NBs to expect. But it isn't just a list of names Hall recites to the staff; it's corporate affiliations and known interests- "He's a competitive runner..." "He's a lawyer at…" "He's a vice-president with…" -because Canoe Googles its NBs, a fact that one manager jokes is "kind of creepy."