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."
In the case of one particular NB with a reservation at noon, there's no need for Google. Canoe's best customer is an executive who doesn't want to be named, so we'll call him Mr. Dee. A man in his 60s, he manages a $15-billion investment fund. He lunches at Canoe three or four times a week and knows not only most of the staff by name but also which ones are marathon runners and who just installed a new deck. He loves raw oysters, and vodka martinis on the rocks with a twist of lemon. And one other interesting fact about Mr. Dee: He almost never pays. "Mr. Dee," says Hall, "is always being entertained."
VERTICAL: SEPTEMBER, 2004 It's not like Gary Chivers and Joe Alberti didn't know what they were getting into when they decided to open their own fine-dining restaurant, Vertical, on the second floor of First Canadian Place. It's not like they didn't know the pitfalls. They'd met each other working at Peppinello, a popular Italian eatery on Pearl Street. Gary went on to earn his manager's scars over nine years in SIR Corp., and helped open Far Niente on Bay Street. Joe toiled at various independent restaurants, then spent six years in the wine agency business. So when it all started for them, they were already restaurant veterans. When Gary, working the cocktail hour one night at Reds in the fall of 2004, heard whispers that restaurateur Chris Boland was thinking of selling The Tasting Rooms, which had languished, unloved, in First Canadian Place for years, and when the two men who wanted to join the big boys in downtown Toronto decided that this was their shot, they really knew what they were doing. They weren't, for example, drunk.
What they didn't know was that all the waiter-managing, drink-pouring, customer-greeting, cost-wrestling knowledge in the world wasn't going to help them slay the hidden ownership dragons of bureaucracy and landlord obstinacy. But they learned.
FONT color=#804000> CANOE: 10:40 a.m. In the gleaming kitchen-which gleams at least partly because 54th-floor restaurants are restricted to electric heat, so nothing gets flame-grilled-corporate chef Anthony Walsh chops raw beef for steak tartar. Walsh fits the mould of the tough-guy chef; he never smiles, swears for no obvious reason and shakes hands with a crushing grip. But he revels in flavours and textures, and he's responsible for establishing Canoe's renown for "high-end Canadian" cuisine. As a corporate chef, and a financial partner, h e isn't typically hands-on, but today the kitchen brigade is down a few bodies-a pastry chef dropped something scalding on her foot, and family matters have called a sous-chef away. So 31-year-old chef de cuisine Tom Brodi works butchery in the back, a sous-chef's job, while Walsh will take Brodi's position, standing at the pass, the transition point for dishes ready to be delivered, acting as expediter.
In the back of the kitchen, at a broad steel table, the big-shouldered Brodi pulls apart a 13-pound hind of caribou, muscle by muscle. The dense meat, its rigor mortis past, is the colour of liver. Brodi carefully trims it and divides it into portions, saving every morsel and scrap for possible use (a well-run restaurant is like an 18th-century Inuit village; nothing is wasted). On the wall a series of charts records the latest protein deliveries according to type-blue for seafood, yellow for poultry, red for meat-and each entry breaks down the costs. A recent $408.24 delivery of bison, at $47.35 a pound, yielded 37 portions, at $11.03 a piece.
Cost control is everything to a restaurant, especially at lunch, when the market won't bear the prices that can be charged at dinner. Cliff Snell, OB's director of business operations, has worked at restaurants where the owner spat at the mention of the afternoon meal. "The margins at lunch are minimal to non-existent," says Snell. "You just don't make a lot of money." Although dinner is where the profits are, lunch contributes two important things. First, it helps generate the big-money business-the typical corporate guest does his due diligence; he tries out a restaurant at lunch before he brings the family for dinner-and second, it helps pay the overhead. There's a cost attached to every customer in a restaurant, before he even places an order, which accounts for rent, taxes, utilities and direct operating expenses such as stemware, settings and uniforms. At Canoe, where linen cleaning alone costs $51,000 a year, the built-in per-customer cost at each meal is $22; without lunch, it would be double.
The trick to making lunch work is managing the cost of sales, specifically food and labour. Labour costs at a restaurant like Canoe run just under 30% of total sales, and Canoe strives to keep its food costs to no more than 32%. Menu "bibles" break down the cost for every ingredient in a dish ($5.76 for the lobster in the lobster clubhouse, $0.04 for the chives), and spreadsheets tally sales and purchases to break out food costs for the day, week, month and year. Last year, for instance, Canoe spent $148,200 on lobster, $74,000 on foie gras and $28,000 on oyster mushrooms.
What saves a restaurant from losing money at lunch is a tricky thing called menu engineering. A simple example is soup. Canoe's mushroom soup is exemplary, but better than that, its food cost is close to 25%. "Soup is a no-brainer," says Walsh. Items like soup, and the romaine salads that are whipped up by a chef de partie named Amanda at the garde manger (the cold station where "apps"-appetizers-and sandwiches are made), help offset the costs of items featuring caribou or steak (or even pasta, when it's the ravioli that Canoe offers, hand-rolled by an Italian mama named Tina). Food costs for these items climb closer to 40%, and even higher. Getting proportions right is key. The Silverware software that waiters use to punch in each order tells management how many salmon dishes are selling versus the famous lobster clubhouse. With a food cost of 45.4%, that sandwich is almost too popular for Canoe's own good.
VERTICAL: OCTOBER, 2004 The first thing Gary and Joe had to do was find out whether the opportunity to take over Boland's Tasting Rooms was for real. Because Gary was still working at Reds, he couldn't be seen to be openly manoeuvring to launch his own place, so they had a go-between, a downtown guy familiar with both parties, make the initial contact. It turned out Boland was at the 81/2-year mark on a 10-year lease and needed to get out while he still had some negotiating power. With time left, he could find someone willing to buy him out of the lease and take some of the chattels and assets off his hands. If he'd left it till the end, the landlord-initially it was Olympia & York-would have slapped a For Rent sign on his window, and Boland would have had to sell his assets cheap.
Once they knew the opportunity was real, Gary and Joe set to raising their capital. That wasn't so hard-as it happens, the idea of owning a piece of a restaurant appeals to a lot of players in the financial district (see "I'll have a slice," page 40). Via "fractional ownership," they contribute chunks of cash for the right to be able to take their clients and buddies out for dinner and say, "Whaddaya think of my restaurant?" For Gary and Joe, the advantage of fractional ownership was that none of their investors would hold too much of the business; nobody would have them by the throat.
CANOE: 10:45 a.m. The servers finish the staff meal they're given every morning, then tend to their pre-lunch duties, broken down according to colour-coded section (e.g., copper's server polishes the coffee thermoses; blue wipes down the fountain). Each server is responsible for his or her own table maintenance-polishing each piece of cutlery and crystal, and setting the big S of each Spiegelau wine glass to face the tip of the place setting's knife. The chairs that face the banquettes are lined up by three waiters with a very long string. Server assistants fold 30 linen napkins to create orifices for the sliced walnut bread. Everyone knows to look for burned-out light bulbs, a management pet peeve. "It's second nature to everybody now," says Claude, a 40-year-old waiter from Montreal. "If I go to a restaurant and see a burnt light bulb in the chandelier it's like, Okay, there's something missing here."
In the kitchen, Nathan, the saucier, sears off the pork tenderloins he's going to need for the early crush, as well as the salmon fillets, beef strip loins and even the tart-sized scallops. Almost everything is cooked rare and stored on a rack. At the same time, as a tray of poached gulf shrimps floats by on the hand of a prep cook, Anthony Walsh counsels the happy pasta cook, Sassi, about his bolognese special. Walsh prides himself on his teaching ability, and he wants the pasta strands loose, bathed in sauce. He twirls his fork in the dish to demonstrate. "You understand me, Sas?" "Yes, boss!" Counting servers, assistants, cooks, hosts, bar staff and managers, there are as many as 35 people on duty during a lunch at Canoe, to serve 110 covers (the restaurant term for a complete meal) in the dining room, with more staff added to serve the up to 64 guests in the private dining rooms the restaurant rents for a minimum of $800 per room (a major profit centre). Oliver Bonacini is management-heavy for a restaurant company-there are nine managers at Canoe, not counting four chefs-with a minimum of two on the floor at any one time to handle crises, open wine as needed or brisk-walk to the cellar down the hall. But it's such a tricky labour-cost dance that Cliff Snell has designed a spreadsheet program to help managers anticipate their staffing needs, based on bookings as well as historical precedent. Once it's fully functional, they'll be able to fine-tune their schedules to hit their labour-cost percentages in advance. And they'll take advantage of this tool, the OB group knows, because the quarterly bonuses for Canoe's managers are tied to how closely they hew to their budgeted costs. It used to be that managers lost points only if they exceeded their budget, but now they also lose if they come under. OB's executives saw everyone coming in under budget, and started to worry they were gouging.
VERTICAL: NOVEMBER, 2004 You have to be careful when you're looking for restaurant investors. "We wanted real guys," says Gary. "Not just guys with more money than brains." Gary's blunt like that, a straight shooter, a guy who commits to an idea and says what he thinks. Gary doesn't say "yes" when he answers a question in the affirmative; he says "hundred percent." Of the two of them, Joe is the gentler personality, a soft-spoken, bespectacled Sicilian with a love of wine, who defers to Gary when Gary's got something to say. Which is often. On the subject of investors, Gary says they didn't want those guys who think owning a restaurant would be cool. Those are the ones who keep suggesting improvements to the cutlery and the waiters' uniforms. No good.
As the weather turned crisp in the late fall, Gary and Joe found 17 investors who fit the profile they were looking for: downtown executives willing to sink no less than $25,000, and no more than $100,000, into a start-up in the financial district, and who had lots of friends they could bring for lunch and dinner. From this cohort, they collected $1 million, which they used to get a small-business loan for a further $250,000 from TD Bank. This wasn't much compared with the more than $7 million that Hoss Drees and Hy's owner David Aisenstat put into Ki, but Gary and Joe figured that for a restaurant seating 74 in the dining room and 35 in the bar, it'd be enough.
Using part of that money, they bought some of Chris Boland's assets, including the walk-in freezer, the walk-in fridge and much of the kitchen equipment-but not the furnishings. The Tasting Rooms hadn't really been redecorated for a couple of decades. It still had the Muskoka look left over from Butterfields in the same location. For a restaurant to have this decor in the financial district was "borderline shocking," says Gary. So no, they weren't buying that stuff.
CANOE: 11:45 a.m. General manager Scott Hall bustles by and puts the serving staff on alert with his trademark line: "Pitter-pat, people!" Walsh, near the garde manger, looks up. "We're the philistines in the back and the ponces up front." He gives an oh-well shrug: "It's not their fault."
At Canoe, two hosts are stationed at the host desk, so there's always someone present to greet arrivals while others are delivered to their table. During the lunch crush, neither of these hosts is allowed to answer the phone, to prevent making arriving guests wait; a third host sits in the back office fielding reservation calls and entering them into the OpenTable system. Periodically, the OB restaurants are tested on the speed and manner with which they answer the phone. A few years ago, Bruce McAdams, OB's fervent vice-president of operations, tried conducting one of these surveys himself, calling each of the restaurants 10 times and asking a series of questions. But of course he had to disguise his voice, and because two of the restaurants had call display, he had to make the calls from a pay phone in Commerce Court, dropping in quarters and trying to take notes. He doesn't do that any more.
When Mr. Dee arrives, with a global investment adviser from Boston we'll call Mr. Grey, the hosts greet him by name, the way Canoe wants every server and server assistant to do. That's not a challenge with Mr. Dee, but not every NB is as recognizable to every employee. So servers will type the names of NBs into the Silverware system with their order, according to seat number (the seat with its back to the entrance is always number 1, and numbers ascend clockwise). Still, it's possible to get it wrong and greet some Mr. Smith with a cheery "Good afternoon, Mr. Jones!" This is the kind of thing the OB group discusses at length in executive meetings. Peter Oliver has declared it an acceptable risk.
The host takes Mr. Dee and Mr. Grey to the restaurant's most coveted table, table 26, situated by the inukshuk sculpture in the corner of the raised level (section blue). From this position, a diner can see the entire restaurant and, through the banks of windows, the city beyond, and luxuriate in a feeling that approximates omnipotence. At seat 3 of table 26, Mr. Dee's vodka martini on the rocks with a twist awaits.
In any restaurant, the bar is the most porous department, the one with the fewest controls. A dishonest bartender can bring in his own bottle, sell off that and pocket the money (one of the reasons no Canoe staff members are allowed to bring gym bags to work). He can over-pour his regulars to get bigger tips, and ensure it doesn't show up during inventory by short-pouring the floor. Canoe's Paul Martin, the junior manager responsible for the bar (who hopes to be a senior manager soon), says, "I don't want to see anybody pouring anything without a shot glass." But even in honest restaurants, the bar causes a problem: When servers pour wines by the glass at the table, the standard six-ounce pour can easily become a seven-ounce pour. That's a free glass of wine every bottle and a half. Canoe managers chart their loss every month when they calculate "Wine A vs. T" (actual versus theoretical). Sommelier Ruben Elmer's monthly inventory records the actual usage in numbers of bottles, which is measured against theoretical usage as recorded by sales. From that, they know Canoe loses between $1,000 and $3,000 worth of wine every month.
VERTICAL: DECEMBER, 2004-JUNE, 2005 After they'd lined up their investors, secured their capital and bought what they wanted from Boland, Gary and Joe went to the landlord to negotiate a lease. They wanted favourable terms. After all, they were bringing new energy and investment to the location, and they wanted Olympia & York to help them out. It's not unheard of for a downtown restaurant; when OB opened Canoe in 1995, TD Bank and Cadillac Fairview ponied up $750,000 to build the place and then loaned the company another $200,000 to complete the work without restrictions on how the money was spent. But Joe and Gary didn't have Peter Oliver's negotiating power.
Over five months, they managed to negotiate a 10-year lease with a five-year renewal, featuring a square- footage rate escalating from $20 to $26 over the life of the lease, and a percentage rent flip that kicks in when they start turning a nice profit: Instead of paying the square-foot rate, they'll pay a percentage of their revenues. Joe and Gary weren't handed any freebies, but they were satisfied with the deal. The problems were in the non-financial matters-i.e., everything else.
Take the patio. For Gary and Joe, use of the second-floor terrace, overlooking a pretty treed parkette, was a major attraction of the First Canadian Place location; it doubled the size of their restaurant in the summer months and, as per usual for restaurant leases, it was included at no extra charge. However, Olympia & York, which planned to refurbish the patio with nice new stone, wanted Gary and Joe to agree to a list of undesirable activities-drug dealing and drunken behaviour being the most obvious-that would get Vertical bumped off the patio. "There's probably five pages in our lease of things that can happen," says Gary. And if any of them do, their patio could be taken away, along with much of their profit. "We have no rights there," he admits.
Even more frustrating was the landlord's aesthetic interference. Everyone Gary and Joe encountered seemed to have an opinion, and sign-off authority on top of it. First it was Olympia & York's chief commercial leasing representative-a "self-professed restaurant expert," according to Gary-then it was the general managers of the building, the first employed by O&Y, the second by Brookfield Properties when it bought the building. Each one of these women insisted she had to approve every design element-lamps, fabrics, chairs, wall coverings-to "make sure the image of the building was protected." You should hear Gary's voice ripple with irony when he says that. After all, he and Joe were replacing a restaurant that for maybe 20 years featured a log-cabin look. "Right there," says Gary, "that's why we were going crazy."
While negotiations on the financial aspects of the lease were going on, they had to submit their concept (high-end southern Italian, featuring lots of fish), their menu and their price points for approval. They had to attach sample menus to the lease, so the landlord would have legal recourse were they ever to start serving, say, pad thai. It was infuriating. "We don't really want a landlord telling us what they think our concept should be," says Gary. "Because, you know what? This is kind of our thing." But by the end of May, 2005, they'd reached an agreement, and the doors closed on The Tasting Rooms. Chris Boland had the month of June to take whatever he was taking. And as of July 1, it became Joe and Gary's place. They had three months, rent-free, to build their restaurant.
They didn't quite make it.
A third guest, invited by Mr. Grey, has arrived at Mr. Dee's table. And although Mr. Dee is surprised by this, he is unfazed because, as a rule, he enjoys the opportunity to make connections over lunch. He finds that business conversation moves more easily into discussions of family and personal interests, which helps to develop a bond and a trust. Mr. Grey certainly has ambitions to develop such a bond, because he hopes Mr. Dee will hire his Boston firm to manage a bit of his fund's money. He will find out, sadly, that Mr. Dee is uninterested. Says Mr. Dee: "We are very settled in our ways."
As more guests arrive, sommelier Ruben Elmer, a soft-spoken young man with a round face and rectangular glasses, begins to move among the tables, summoned either by waiters whose guests are trying to decide on wine, or by glimpses of businessmen playing "pass the wine list." Roughly a third of the typical lunch crowd will order wine, compared with 90% at dinner, because guests dining with colleagues are careful not to appear to be drinkers. When they do want wine but seem unsure, Elmer is conscious of not letting them be embarrassed, and so at table 15 he gently steers a woman away from a bottle of Vouvray because, to a table of businesspeople striking a professional pose, sweet wine "doesn't look good."
Catering to guests in this way is part of a concept introduced by Peter Oliver called "emotional service," by which, through extraordinary effort, servers gain not just their customers' money but their love. The job on the floor is to stay hyper alert, to anticipate every need including, frequently, the need to stay away. "Sometimes, particularly at lunch, service is what you don't do," says a waiter named Greg. After a high-powered lunch, guests will often pull Greg aside and thank him for leaving them alone.
It took some time for the concept of emotional service to catch on within OB. Two years after instituting it, Bruce McAdams wasn't seeing the buy-in that he expected among managers. So one fall weekend three years ago, the managers were invited up to Oliver's picturesque cottage near Peterborough. On the Friday night they drank wine, fished and played Pictionary. And very early Saturday morning, they squinted through their hangovers and got down to work. After many hours of flip charts and discussion, they figured out that McAdams and the rest of the leadership were part of the problem. During the general managers' meetings, run by McAdams and Cliff Snell, all the focus was on sales numbers and procedures. There was no focus on the emotion of emotional service-perhaps because it couldn't be expressed as a number. Now, OB restaurants document "moments of truth," when a server or manager goes out of his way to please a client. And when Peter Oliver calls McAdams and asks about sales, McAdams scolds him. You can tell he gets a kick out of that.
VERTICAL: JULY-AUGUST, 2005 In the realm of restaurant frustrations in the financial district, patio legalese and constant aesthetic interference are tough, but they're not back-breakers. The backbreakers would be unionized labour and city hall bureaucracy. You want to build a restaurant within a retail complex? Fine, but you won't be doing that construction work during the day, my friend. You'll be doing it in the evening, and at the night hourly rate. And the union labour you're using will have to be approved by the building, which has its own plumbing and electrical and HVAC contractors it wants you to use, who aren't always available when you really need them. And, by the way, you can't start ripping out the old fixtures and decor to get a look at the guts-the ductwork and wiring and systems-until you get a building permit, and you can't get a permit until you submit plans, which rely on some knowledge of what's behind the stuff you haven't yet ripped out. Joe and Gary knew that some of the stuff back there was more than 20 years old; there was no telling what they were dealing with. Sometimes, just to get the paperwork started, they guessed. Then, when they saw what was really there, they had to do it all over.
Joe and Gary managed to find a general contractor with restaurant experience, who also had ties to a millwork company that could build the rich cabinetry and the $5,600 solid mahogany tables for the private dining room that would help define the Vertical look. But with various approval delays, they didn't start demolition until August. That was a month lost right there. And now that they were in a hurry, they couldn't get the union guys to move. A workman would start threading a pipe at 1 p.m., and at 2 p.m. he'd still be at it. "You can't drive these guys," says Gary. "They work till noon on Fridays. And if the contractor drives 'em too hard, he'll just get a grievance slapped on him and the whole job shuts down." Was it like walking on eggshells, Gary? "Hundred per cent."
CANOE: 12:05 p.m.
On the kitchen's two tiny printers, stationed at the garde manger and at the pass, the first order of lunch prints out-the pink copy for apps, the white copy for mains. Barry the sous-chef clips his white chit to the metal rail above him. "And we're off!"
Anthony Walsh, the day's expediter, still has some time before things get really hairy, so he spends a moment at the raw bar creating an "amuse" (short for amuse bouche, a little foodie treat) for Mr. Dee's table. He tells Vlad, the chef de partie over at the sandwich station, to shuck three raw oysters for him. From that request, Amanda at the garde manger knows what's up. "Twenty-six," she nods to herself. "The bigwig table."
At the raw bar, Walsh assembles the amuse in three bowls: Little flash-fried cubes of tuna set around a glistening oyster, sprinkled with onion water and topped with a tiny slice of tuna belly. When the plates are ready, the waiter takes two-Canoe servers are allowed to carry only two dishes at a time-and motions to the third. "You wanna take Mr. Dee's?" Walsh nods, and they whisk the surprise to table 26, where Mr. Dee receives Walsh like an old friend.
VERTICAL: SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER, 2005 While they worried about the construction delays, Gary and Joe tried to attend to the fun part of the job. They found a design firm to create an interior featuring clean, contemporary lines. They searched out the smallwares-stemware, dishes and cutlery-that would give their tables style. In the showroom of Globe Hotelware, a favourite supplier of Toronto's higher-end restaurants, they picked an angular dinner knife that no one else in the city was using; it cost nearly 11 bucks a piece but, hey, it stood on its edge.
They also worked on the menu. They'd already chosen their chef-we'll call him Marco-a young cook from southern Italy who was a friend of Joe's, and who both understood the refined Mediterranean style they wanted and wasn't so experienced as to be set in his ways. As construction continued, Marco came up with dishes and used the test kitchen of Nella Cucina, a culinary school, for tastings. And while the food was being devised, Gary and Joe set about hiring prep cooks and servers. That they were opening in late fall was a bit of a problem; a lot of good people preferred to hold on to the jobs they had rather than be uprooted so close to the Christmas season. That forced Gary and Joe to hire a few inexperienced staffers, based on potential.
While they crossed their fingers on that front, they watched their opening get delayed. The first of two building inspectors kept finding little issues that needed to be addressed-wiring, floor grates, the swinging mechanism on the doors of the handicapped washroom stalls. Each problem meant maybe half a day's work, but the inspector wouldn't come back to approve the work for a week and a half, and they couldn't move forward until he did. "One guy," fumes Gary, "cost us five weeks." Given the time of year, they figured that worked out to about $400,000 in lost revenue.
CANOE: 12:30 p.m.
Things are humming now. At the pasta station, Sassi slams a clump of capellini into his mouth to test for doneness, while at the garde manger Amanda gently chides Vlad as he finishes a shrimp cocktail-"Vlad, what do you have against garnishes? We have all this green stuff…"-and reaches in with sprigs of amaranth and arugula.
On the line, Nathan quickly sears blocks of flesh, positioned according to "colour" (rare is always on the right). Beside him, Barry the sous-chef churns out jewels of rare tuna, sliced thin, cherry red, and laid on beds of citrus grains. Though Barry's fairly new, he's handling the pace-he worked at Jump, under the rigorous rule of executive chef Filippo Mancuso, who likes to say of lunch there, "We're faster than fast food!"
Nothing matters more to a downtown restaurant's survival than the ability to get lunch out quickly. "For 90 per cent of the people coming to our restaurants at lunch," says McAdams, "it's not about the food." That's because when you're paying $20 for a sandwich, the quality of the food is a given. The variable is whether they get you out, happy and fed, with time to spare before your 2 o'clock meeting. Everything at lunch-menu, kitchen, reservations, service-is designed with that goal in mind. In the front, reservations are spaced out so that waiters can get to each table without delay. That restaurant you love doesn't have a table at noon? It does, actually, but you can't have it until 12:15. For OB's locations, McAdams has every element of service timed-one to three minutes for "first approach," a maximum of five for order and delivery of drinks. He learned his finicky trade in the Red Lobster chain, and when he's out watching the floor of an OB restaurant, as he is every day at 12:30, his stomach knots at any delay. ("Tea is the worst nightmare," McAdams exclaims. What with getting the tea bag, the hot water and cup, "It can take three or four minutes.")
In the kitchen, dishes are built for speed: few hot apps, more soups and salads and, in the mains, pastas and items that have high visual appeal but cook quickly, like that rare-seared tuna. "You can knock 'em out like that," says Walsh, snapping his fingers. "Thirty tuna for lunch and you won't think anything of it."
At this stage, the expediter is critical. Walsh, at his most severe, stands at the pass, pulling orders off the printer and shouting. "Pickup steak! Pickup salmon!" means that on the floor, a waiter has signalled through the computer that his table of two has nearly finished its apps, so Nathan the saucier should grab a steak and salmon fillet from his par-cooked supply and start finishing the mains. "Hands!" means Barry has plated and garnished the result, and it's time for server assistants to take those dishes to the table.
A line cook might be tempted to peek at the order chits that get stuck up on the rail, just to keep track of what he needs to get ready. But he'd better not get caught if he does. "That's a bad habit with these guys," grumbles Walsh. "I get pissed off if I see him watching the fucking rail. You fucking listen. Get it in your fucking head." Walsh used to work with a chef who would put the chits on the rail facing in so the cooks couldn't see.
VERTICAL: NOVEMBER, 2005 Marco and his staff tried to set up their kitchen even while walls were being installed. As time counted down, the fridge wasn't ready and the freezer wasn't working. Perishables started to arrive, and they had no place to put them. All the construction delays prevented Vertical from getting its liquor licence, because you can't apply for a liquor licence on an unfinished restaurant. Even once they were cleared for their licence, it took the Alcohol and Gaming Commission time to process it; Gary finally went down to the office and refused to leave until they handed it to him. "It took all of our personal skills," he says, "to just not start killing people."
With their opening finally set for December 9, five weeks late, Gary and Joe worked to build some buzz. Sometimes, when trying to create an instant clientele, new restaurants resort to tricks. New clubs have been known to employ strippers to sit at the bar and look alluring. It's said that the owners of Ki generated business in the early days by identifying the "connectors" in the business district, the people who know people, then inviting them in for a meal and paying their tab. Yannick Bigourdan, the owner of Splendido, sees nothing wrong with that. "It's a fair marketing tool; it's an exchange of service." But Gary and Joe didn't want the fickle crowd, so they tried a more subtle approach. They held two pre-opening parties: one for a crowd of potential guests in the financial district, another that cleverly included 30 concierges from all the downtown hotels. Gary and Joe were confident they could generate a good lunch business right away-one benefit of opening in December was all the Christmas lunch parties they could get. But they needed some dinner business too, and to build that, they needed concierges to send hotel guests their way. And they would have, because Vertical had one great asset many stalwarts of the district, such as Bymark and Canoe, lack-it had a front door that opened onto a recognizable landmark, the pretty little King Street parkette. No wandering through the underground PATH nonsense. Just find the parkette, those concierges would say, then walk up the steps, and you're there.
And that would have worked beautifully, really…if their landlord hadn't blocked the entrance.
CANOE: 12:45 p.m. At a waiter's station, sommelier Ruben Elmer decants a half-bottle of Tuscan Brunello that looks tiny in his hands. "This is what the two-martini lunch has been reduced to," he says wryly. "I was born at the wrong time." Though guests at Canoe will spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, the occasions of customers spending excessively to impress-"waving their dicks around," in the restaurant parlance-are few. At Canoe, they can tell that, post-Enron, expense accounts are being watched more closely; though the cost of utilities has risen more than 300% in the past seven years, the average bill for a meal has climbed just 22%. But once in a while, someone exhibits the old flourish, such as last Thursday, when a man with both a taste for $700-a-bottle 1995 Quintarelli Amarone and, in the words of one Canoe staffer, a "big, throbbing, purple-headed expense account," racked up a $3,500 bar bill.
Some things don't change, however. In terms of their tastes, businesspeople resist the unknown. There's a working formula for menus in the financial district: You have to have a steak, a tuna, a salmon and something hot laid on a salad. To some degree, that holds true even at Canoe; Walsh wouldn't eat a "big fuckin' steak" for lunch, but he knows he has to offer it. The same goes for shrimp cocktail. "These are things that people want," he says with conviction. "I don't mind."
But careful with the experimentation. Right now, the lamb's-tongue salad is not a winner, says Walsh. "As great as lamb's tongue is, we ain't selling it." Tom Brodi once tried to add a flatiron steak to the menu-long, juicy and flavourful, but denser than the typical strip loin. It seemed the lunch guests couldn't understand why they were being asked to chew so much; they had nothing but complaints. So Brodi added it to the banquet menu. The banquet guests ate it up.
VERTICAL: DECEMBER, 2005-MARCH, 2006 From the start, their noon hours were packed. After a few practice runs, they opened on a Monday to 100 covers a lunch. But anything after lunch was a problem. Dinner was dead, and even cocktail hour was troubled. Contractors took their sweet time refurbishing the patio, and construction tape closed off access to Vertical's front door. Anyone wanting to come to the restaurant had to snake through the underground PATH system, along the corridors and over the escalators of First Canadian Place, and then finally brave the crazed gauntlet of the food court right next to Vertical's rear entrance, which did not put potential guests in mind of the flavourful, minimalist Mediterranean fish and pasta preparations that Gary and Joe and chef Marco had devised.
And once they'd managed to attract guests into the restaurant, and put them at ease under a ceiling of gathered crimson fabric, or in the lounge, sitting at the sleek, custom-built sandstone bar, those guests had to listen to jackhammers pounding the patio surface into dust. "Our bar would clear out," says Gary, his eyes wide. "People would be like, 'Give me the tab,' and they're leaving."
And while all this was happening, because they needed another headache, it was becoming clear to Gary and Joe that Marco, though talented, was not working out. "We had a vision of where we wanted to go," says Gary, "and Marco was part of that vision. Unfortunately, he just couldn't deliver."
Before Vertical, Marco had worked at Zucca, where they'd never even opened for lunch. He wasn't prepared for the pace. "Very, very intense," is how he describes the Vertical lunch now. "You felt your blood get really worked." Joe and Gary wanted Vertical to be famous for fish; they wanted it to be renowned for simple, powerful flavours. And as hard as Marco worked, it wasn't happening. So they hired a chef recruiter to find Marco's replacement, while he slaved away out of his depth, a kind of dead man cooking.
They're a somewhat ruthless breed, restaurant recruiters-they'll walk up to a chef in the middle of a busy lunch, even at a chef's own restaurant, hand him a card without regard to who's standing nearby and announce, "I've got a job for you." The Vertical search narrowed to a gifted, if peripatetic, chef named Tawfik Shehata. Egyptian by background, with a wild bush of hair, Shehata had risen from an apprentice at Scaramouche, through sous-chef jobs at the Rosewater Supper Club, Boba and Auberge du Pommier, to run his own restaurant, Eau. Now he cooked for Joe and Gary after hours in his own home, and ate undercover at Vertical to see the kitchen in action. Within a few weeks, he and Joe and Gary decided it was a fit.
So as not to shake up the staff, or the customers, Shehata agreed to change the menu slowly, over a period of weeks. The chef switch, however, happened instantly. At 10:30 one night, after they'd signed Shehata up, Joe and Gary went out for a late meal-at Canoe-and invited Marco to join them. "When I went to Canoe, I had a feeling that things weren't right," says Marco. He wasn't surprised when they gave him the news.
CANOE: 1:20 p.m. The rush has passed. In the back, as cooks find a moment to sip coffee, Walsh takes delivery of some Dorset lamb from one of his eccentric suppliers. Out front, Scott Hall is mildly annoyed. He has to call a server into the kitchen and ask him to deliver a plate. This tends to happen at the end of lunch, when servers start focusing on other duties. Says Hall: "Even though we only have a table of five and a table of three and a table of two sitting in the restaurant right now-like, come on. We're still in service here!"
Out on the floor, some of the waiters are picking up their credit-card receipts. No server will admit to how much they make from tips at Canoe. Claude calls it "the most taboo subject there is." But the system for distributing the largesse of guests is clear: At the end of each shift, when waiters tally their sales, 6% of the total is automatically deducted and shared on a percentage basis with server assistants, hosts, dishwashers and cooks. That means that when a guest leaves without tipping, which happens, says Claude, "more often than you think," it actually costs waiters money.
That table of three, by the way, is Mr. Dee's table. After another few minutes, they start to stand-Mr. Grey has a plane to catch-and Mr. Dee thanks the server again for the oyster amuse. Nearby, an expensively dressed elderly couple, the final table of two, rise smiling from their seats. The man chucks their waiter affectionately on the shoulder, and lunch is officially done.
VERTICAL: APRIL-JULY, 2006 The patio reconstruction continued into the spring (with all of the outdoor liquor licence delays that entailed), and Gary and Joe's hope of opening their patio by the end of May fizzled. They walked around in the gorgeous sunshine of the first week of June and saw all their competitors' patios open, raking in money. "It was just killing us," remembers Joe. Finally, on Friday, June 16, the staff of Vertical was out on the patio's fresh-laid granite, screwing together the metal furniture Joe and Gary had bought on sale and kept in storage for a year. They scrapped plans to have a dedicated outdoor kitchen, and on June 30 the outdoor bar was leaning against a wall, in pieces, waiting for the plumbing and electrical work to be done. They hoped the building's workmen would be coming by soon. All of which explains why Joe and Gary weren't counting on meeting their revenue projection of $3.5 million for Vertical's first year. They figured they'd be happy if they do $2.5 million, which wouldn't begin to start paying back their 17 silent investors.
As of the beginning of July, lunch on the Vertical patio was still a work in progress. Shehata seemed to be handling things well in the kitchen-Vertical's graceful pastas were charged with flavour-but, on the floor, things weren't yet refined. "Is there supposed to be a hostess outside?" a waiter pleaded one day at a quarter to noon. "What's going on?" And they were still waiting for their first review in one of the major papers, which they were counting on to help drive sales. Joe and Gary decided to start marketing directly to the office towers that surround them, to the people who, although they can look out the window and see their patio, don't even know Vertical exists. As part of that effort, they planned to visit every office in First Canadian Place to drop off biscottis, or something, to announce their presence. Of course, that would be against the building's rules. But screw it, they were going to do it anyway. "You gotta survive," said Joe. "We're not Peter Oliver. We're Joe and Gary."