In 1993, a young Michael Bonacini, then the chef at the venerated Italian restaurant Centro, received a call from a headhunter. The recruiter was working with a mystery restaurateur who was searching for a chef and partner for a new project in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.
Mr. Bonacini agreed to a meeting. “And there, waiting for me – six-foot-four, big, toothy smile, long and lanky – was Peter.”
By then, Peter Oliver was already a fixture of Toronto’s restaurant scene. He had a handful of successful midtown businesses to his name (including Oliver’s Old-Fashioned Bakery and Auberge du Pommier). And just a few years earlier, Mr. Oliver had tried, unsuccessfully, to poach Mr. Bonacini.
But this time around, the restaurant Mr. Oliver told the chef he was trying to build captured Mr. Bonacini’s imagination: An upmarket but casual spot called Jump, which would cater to the expense-account wielding Bay Street crowd.
“I said, ‘Oh, that sounds like Union Square Cafe in New York.’ And Peter immediately said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly it.’”
They struck a deal. And thus a restaurant empire was born.
Within months, Mr. Bonacini caught a glimpse of his partner’s ambition. In the car one day, Mr. Oliver turned to him and asked, ‘How many restaurants do you think we can own together?’ The chef answered with “six,” and immediately worried he would seem audacious.
But the expression on Mr. Oliver’s face made clear he had much bigger plans.
“You had a conversation with Peter,” Mr. Bonacini said, “and you couldn’t help but start to think big as well.”
Mr. Oliver died Sept. 21 at the age of 74.
Over three decades, the pair built one of the country’s most powerful hospitality companies, including 34 restaurants and venues under the Oliver and Bonacini brand (most notably, Canoe, the O&B Café Grills and Canteen). They also invested together in dozens of other businesses, including SOMA Chocolatemaker, Pizzeria Libretto and the food-court staple iQ Foods.
“Peter could sell you on a vision, an idea, a dream,” Mr. Bonacini said.
Peter Charles Howard Oliver was born July 30, 1948 in Cape Town, South Africa, to Guy Oliver, a soldier who had suffered a debilitating injury during the Second World War, and Joan Parsonson, a Canadian. With the aid of wealthy relatives abroad, Peter was sent to boarding school in South Africa at the age of seven. A few years after that, his father died.
In 1967, Peter arrived in Canada to attend McGill University. He was under the impression that, because his mother was Canadian, tuition would be free, said his son Marc Oliver. Upon realizing the mistake (and lacking other options), Peter took on a series of odd jobs to help pay for his education.
He did scaffolding work on the Gardiner Expressway. In the summers, he travelled to Zimbabwe, where his mother had remarried. Her new husband was a tobacco farmer, and Peter worked on the farm.
He even worked as a lumberjack. “He had no idea what he was doing. He just started hacking at the logs,” Marc said. Out of pity, they let him stay.
At McGill, Mr. Oliver played on the school’s rugby team. During one of those games in Toronto, he met Maureen Murphy, then a young York University student, outside Varsity Stadium. They fell in love and after graduation, settled in Toronto.
By the late 1970s, Peter had built a successful career in commercial real estate, and as a stockbroker. He decided his mother and stepfather should come to Canada and that together they would start a bakery – that Peter would build it, and Joan would run it. But just as the business was ready to open, Joan changed her mind.
So Peter decided to run the shop, which he called Oliver’s Old Fashioned Bakery. One restaurant became two, then three, and four. And then he met Bonacini.
Without fail, Mr. Oliver worked 80-hour weeks. “There were times when I was growing up … when the only way I’d know my father lived in our house was because I would see the headlights come through the window late at night,” his son Marc said. The headlights would leave again early in the morning.
Somehow, he still found time to attend his sons’ hockey games, his daughters’ rowing regattas – “always the loudest dad in the stands” – and to raise money for charity.
“He was maniacal with the way he worked,” Marc said. “Coming from humble means, he was going to do whatever it took to be successful.”
The restaurants weren’t all successes.
There were restaurants that lost, “an insane amount of money,” Marc said.
“There were tough times, where Christmas was cookies, where things weren’t going well with the business,” Mr. Oliver’s elder son, Andrew Oliver, said. “There were years where there was no funding, and my mom [who worked as an Air Canada flight attendant] had to support everyone.”
And when it came time to build Jump, Bonacini said, they spent $150,000 over budget just to get the doors open – and both had to put their homes up as security for the loan. “We pretty much hawked all that we could hawk.”
Luckily, Jump was a success. Within weeks, they were run off their feet. Both Mr. Bonacini and Mr. Oliver had to ask their wives to work coat check because they couldn’t hire and train staff fast enough to keep up.
At the restaurants, Mr. Oliver’s attention to detail was legendary. It wasn’t unusual to find him scrubbing the garbage area, or hand-writing thank-you letters to employees. He expected the same in return.
“He would say the first few letters of ‘culture’ spelled ‘cult,” Mr. Bonacini said. “And that we wanted a cult-like culture.”
Although Mr. Bonacini, with his stints as a judge on MasterChef Canada, would emerge as the more public face of the company, it was Mr. Oliver who would personally train each and every new employee, sitting down for dinner with them at the end of the five-hour training session.
Each and every day, without fail, he would shine his brogues before work. His kids, too, were expected to dress appropriately – including suits and ties for the boys each time they travelled.
“He believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right,” Andrew said. “In the kitchen, he’d say ‘make it nice, or make it twice.’”
It was only a decade ago, after Andrew took over as president and CEO of the company, that Mr. Oliver eased up on his time at the restaurants. He devoted more of his time to charity – including the Leacock Foundation, a charity he founded to support marginalized youth groups in Toronto and South Africa. He also worked closely with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (his daughter Vanessa has Type 1 diabetes). He started the JDRF Ride to Defeat Diabetes in 1986, which has since raised $70-million.
He also finally allowed himself some time to relax. He’d tell his friends, with a puckish grin, that he was going to “meet with Mr. Green” – his code for golf, and enjoyed annual golfing trips to Arizona with his sons.
And as often as possible, he spent time at his cottage on Baptiste Lake near Bancroft. But for Peter, even a place of leisure needed purpose. He threw himself into landscaping, and doing most of the manual labour himself.
“My mom would say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him, he doesn’t want to relax,’” Marc said. “He just goes there in the morning and digs ditches.’”
After Mr. Oliver was diagnosed with lung cancer in May of last year, he still made regular trips to the cottage to spend time with family. He taught his grandchildren how to grow vegetables. He would host large family dinners with the food they had grown, telling everyone that “nobody on Lake Baptiste is eating better than us.”
And afterwards, with a gin and tonic – garnished with a sprig of fresh mint – in hand, he would take a moment to enjoy himself. “This,” he’d say, “is living.”
Mr. Oliver leaves his wife, Maureen; his children, Vanessa, Jessica, Andrew and Marc; and nine grandchildren.