Jamie Oliver, the boyish British television chef and healthy-eating crusader, is set to announce a deal this week to open as many as 10 locations of his casual full-service restaurant chain Jamie's Italian across Canada.
The deal is a partnership with King Street Food Company, which runs Toronto's respected Buca and Bar Buca restaurants. The first Jamie's Italian will open by early spring at north Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre, said Peter Tsebelis, one of King Street's founders.
Mr. Oliver's Canadian restaurant debut will offer a fresh challenge to the country's incumbent premium-casual restaurant companies, which have been in a fight in recent years for market share. The western-based Joey Restaurants and Earls have both made aggressive in-roads in Ontario in the last few years, and the fast-growing B.C. upstart Browns Socialhouse has broken ground on a new location in Oakville, just west of Toronto.
Meanwhile, visits to premium-casual restaurants in Canada, a category that also includes The Keg, Moxie's Grill & Bar, and others, have declined since 2008, said Robert Carter, executive director of the food service group at The NPD Group, in Toronto.
If you're a premium-casual restaurant in today's environment, the only way you're going to increase your traffic is by stealing customers from your competitors," Mr. Carter said. Yorkdale Shopping Centre is already home to a Joey, a Milestones and a Moxie's, as well as a food court it's been working to take upscale.
Jamie's Italian will also have to compete with made-in-Toronto mini-chains Terroni and Mercatto, both of which have built loyal followings around town.
Mr. Oliver brings no shortage of name-recognition in Canada, however. Last year the 39-year-old chef partnered with Nova Scotia –based Sobeys Inc. to bring a line of branded foods, as well as healthy cooking tips and fresh-focused recipes such as mojito salads and barbecued peaches, to the company's 1,500 locations across Canada. His face is a fixture at the stores, on life-size cardboard cutouts and product shelves.
Mr. Oliver is also a business partner in Maison Publique, a Montreal restaurant run by his long-time friend Derek Dammann, a chef. He is a fixture on network television, with shows such as the enormously popular Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which was produced by Ryan Seacreast and is focused on improving school lunches and home-cooked meals across the U.S.
Jamie's Italian first opened in 2008 in Oxford, England, and now has 35 locations in the UK, Australia, Ireland, Hong Kong and Singapore. Though its menus change somewhat with the season and location, they typically include plenty of light and vegetable-focused dishes in addition to pastas and steaks; one dish in London right now, called the "superfood salad," is made from fennel, beets, asparagus, eggplant, "garden leaves," avocadoes and "a mix of grains, shoots, nuts and leaves."
In London, where Mr. Oliver's name is often greeted with a mix of envy and the sort of disdain that's bred from overexposure, the respected restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin wrote in a 2009 review of the city's first Jamie's Italian location that she had hoped Mr. Oliver would fall "flat on his increasingly portly face."
She described the room as a mix of "bar tables hewn from tree trunks," "old fruit store shelving groaning with too-perfect peppers and squashes and garlic," and "hams and fat, bloated scamorza cheeses dangling everywhere like cartoon figs."
But then she confessed that to her disappointment she actually loved the restaurant. "When it comes to a quality chain product all ready to be rolled out to his millions of slavering fans – and they do exist, all you naysayers – St Jamie has genuinely done it again," Ms. O'Loughlin wrote.
Mr. Tsebelis said that the partners in the new venture plan to move slowly before expanding nationally, but that they hope to open ten locations across Canada in the next five years. They will use as much local produce as possible, he said, as well as salumi and other foods that Mr. Oliver has endorsed.
The Yorkdale Mall location will have 200 seats, said Mr. Tsebelis, and will be overseen in large part by King Street's executive chef Rob Gentile.
Mr. Oliver wasn't available for comment on Tuesday, but when he ate at Buca in the fall of 2011, he could hardly contain his excitement. He took to Twitter to call his dinner there "my favourite meal of the year," and to label Mr. Gentile a "humble genius."
Mr. Carter of The NPD Group said he wasn't surprised that Mr. Oliver had chosen Canada for his North American launch instead of the U.S.
Canadian restaurant customers are typically most concerned with "quality, innovation and strong flavour profiles," he said, while Americans focus increasingly on price. He added that there might be room in Canada for a high-quality Italian chain.
The only competitor of any national scope is East Side Mario's, he said.