Peter Oliver is getting to his favourite part. The man who knows better than anyone else how to feed the country's business class is describing the glass-and-steel canopy that will hang above the entrance to his next Toronto restaurant, Biff's. It's an ambitious venture, he says, a fusion of "great French bistro with London cool," fourth in a wildly successful stable that includes Auberge du Pommier, Jump and Canoe. "Perhaps we'll have the letters go B-I-F-F-S, B-I-F-F-S," he spells out, grinning. "Like Las Vegas."
It's June 13, three months before Biff's is scheduled to open, and Oliver is making his Paris-on-the-Humber pitch to four reps from Domaine Chandon California, a sparkling-wine producer affiliated with the French Champagne giant Moët & Chandon. Oliver wants them to subsidize one of two private dining rooms in exchange for putting the winery's name on the room's door. They can't afford to take a pass, he urges, because Biff's will make more than bouillabaisse and coq au vin; it's going to make history. "We want to create a restaurant that Toronto hasn't seen before," he says.
As the founder and chief dealmaking half of Oliver Bonacini Restaurants, Oliver has already come close with Canoe, a high-concept Canadian-themed restaurant 54 floors above Bay Street in the Toronto-Dominion Centre. By Oliver's reckoning, Canoe, which opened in 1995, has become one of the most successful restaurants in the country, with sales last year in excess of $7 million. By contrast, the average full-service restaurant in Canada took in less than one-tenth Canoe's revenues in 1999, or $609,715, according to the Canadian Restaurant & Foodservices Association. The average pretax net-income rate of 6.4 % for a fine-dining restaurant wouldn't impress a software executive. By contrast, Oliver says his restaurants earn between 12% and 20% of sales.
But, at this point, Biff's is merely a theoretical construct. The entrance in question, on Front Street across from the Hummingbird Centre, has not been touched since its previous tenant, the Boston Tavern, closed in mid-March. Inside, it's as though a bomb had gone off: Empty chairs sit at empty tables. The kitchen air smells of leftover grease. Oliver has yet to sign the lease on the 5,800-square-foot dining room because of a dispute with the landlord over ventilation. There's no chef in place; all that's been decided regarding the menu is that it will be "French with an Asian twist," the '90s culinary cliché.
Such details, however, seem not to phase the avuncular 52-year-old Oliver, a trim, white-haired man who looks like a cross between James Coburn and the Man from Glad, and who seems to smile down ceaselessly on the world from his 6-foot-4 frame. He'd prefer to focus on details that will generate what he keeps referring to as "the buzz." The offbeat name is part of it. "Biff's" is meant to exude preppy informality, like the dumb-jock son in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the antithesis of stuffy establishment dining. And while the chef may be a question mark, Oliver knows exactly what the maître d' will be wearing opening night -- "a James Bond-style tuxedo jacket, to let people know that when they come to Biff's, it's show business."
Despite his enthusiasm for over-the-top Casino Royale trappings, Oliver is anything but a gambler, certainly not compared with most other restaurateurs. In a city renowned for its fickle diners, where restaurants hatch and are slaughtered faster than a supermarket chicken, he's obsessed with minimizing the odds of failure.
Hence the Chandon meeting. Oliver figures that anything he can do to shave his start-up costs will put that much more distance between him and the bankruptcy courts. In 1999, almost 1,300 of Canada's 63,000 restaurants weren't so lucky. And hence the presence at the meeting of a reporter. In the belief that any media coverage -- so long as it's free -- is better than none, Oliver has granted R.O.B. Magazine access to all of Biff's planning meetings. Weeks later, a videographer from the Life Network will film a few meetings for a documentary -- more publicity negotiated by Oliver.
As it turns out, the Chandon reps aren't interested in subsidizing Biff's private dining room. They've come with their own agenda. Ryan Harris, business development manager for Domaine Chandon, pitches Oliver and marketing director Theresa Suraci on the idea of branding Biff's 40-seat bar with the Chandon logo. It would be the winery's second such venture, after the Chandon Bar in Buenos Aires, a celebrity hangout. "The models, they do shoots there all the time," boasts Harris.
Oliver laps up the idea: "We do want this to become hot fast."
Success did not come instantly to Oliver. A native of South Africa, he moved to Canada in the 1960s to enroll in McGill University's commerce program. After a stint as a stockbroker, he became a commercial real estate agent, starting Oliver's Old Fashioned Bakery in midtown Toronto in 1978 as a sideline. He was inspired by the long lineups at a country-style sandwich counter in suburban Brampton, Ont.
The gourmet-sandwich business was well timed, coinciding with Toronto's culinary coming-out, and the bakery grew to accommodate a deli and bistro. In 1987, Oliver tried his hand at upscale dining, opening two restaurants: the French-country-themed Auberge du Pommier, and Bofinger, inspired by a Parisian bistro of the same name off Place de la Bastille.
The critics were not all kind. Of Bofinger, The Globe's Joanne Kates was particularly scathing, summarizing the food as "tourist all the way." Auberge, in north Toronto, managed to survive both the early criticism and the recession and to earn acclaim, but money-losing Bofinger was transformed into Paramount in 1994, before closing its doors in 1996.
In 1993, Oliver joined forces with Michael Bonacini. A former chef at Toronto's Centro restaurant and the Windsor Arms Hotel, Bonacini, a native of Wales, is described by admiring competitors as the culinary yin to Oliver's business yang. Together they launched Jump in underused lobby space in Commerce Court East near the old stock exchange. It was an instant hit. Two years later, the pair opened Canoe to widespread acclaim.
Ask most restaurateurs for their key to success and they'll mumble some platitude about food quality or attentive service. Ask Oliver about Jump and Canoe, and he may launch into a sermon about real estate. He negotiated leases for both those spaces during the early '90s recession, when -- as a former office-space broker -- he knew he could play hard to get. "A chef may know about food but not have a clue about real estate leases and he'll get killed," he says. "A waiter who opens a restaurant, he's like a sitting duck." In each case, Oliver held out for a big signing bonus to help pay for renovation costs. In return, he agreed to pay a rent premium should the restaurant exceed a mutually predetermined annual revenue. (Both quickly did.) It's a way of getting the landlords to share the risk, a classic Oliver strategy. "The more they want you and the more ambivalent you are, the better the deal gets," he says.
In Biff's, Oliver may have scored his most attractive land deal yet. The prior tenant, Michael Carlevale, who runs Prego della Piazza and Black and Blue, two respected restaurants off Toronto's Bloor Street, had invested about $1.25 million to build the Boston Club, a handsome, wood-panelled tribute to buttoned-down New England.
The Boston Club was praised for its seafood by critics but failed to pack in the all-important business and pretheatre crowds. Its high-concept menu and understated façade seemed out of sync with the neighbouring chain-food tenants, Penelope (a Greek restaurant) and Shopsy's deli. The location was problematic to begin with -- a storefront spot at the foot of the ungainly EDS office building. A repositioning as the downscale Boston Tavern failed to turn the tide. "I thought there was room in the market for a serious downtown restaurant and, boy, was I wrong," says Carlevale.
Oliver smelled blood. He offered to pay Carlevale $240,000 -- less than one-fifth his renovation expense -- to take over the Boston Tavern lease. "It's a classic philosophy of his," says Carlevale, who believes Oliver has the corporate following to make the location viable. "He got it at a price that's not relevant to anything."
That's not all he got. In exchange for agreeing to renegotiate the base rent upward from $15 a square foot to $22, Oliver won an inducement bonus of a little more than the $240,000 figure from the landlord, Great-West Life Realty Advisors. Oliver's rationale for agreeing to a higher rent? Biff's business plan projected a very healthy annual revenue of $4 million, which meant that, should Biff's succeed, Oliver would be paying not the flat square-footage rent of $22, but the higher revenue-percentage rate, making the square-foot rate a moot point. The upshot: Oliver not only got a renovated space at a discount, he made money on the deal. "We got more of a tenant inducement than the landlord needed to give," Oliver says smugly. "The landlord didn't need to give anything away."
Five weeks before the scheduled opening, Oliver, Bonacini and Biff's general manager, Jody Palubiski -- recruited from a chain that owns mid-priced downtown competitors such as Alice Fazooli's and Reds -- are conducting one of their weekly construction-update meetings. They are gathered at the Biff's site with the general contractor, Jim Athanasiou, and designer Ingrid Herczegh. The space still looks much the way it did two months ago. There's a note of anxiety in Oliver's voice as he demands to see a sample of the zinc bartop, which he anticipates will be a showcase feature. "It can't look like a reproduction," he insists to Edward Piatkowski, a metalworker who's just walked in. Piatkowski offers to have a sample ready by next Wednesday. Oliver wants it by Tuesday. Piatkowski agrees.
Then Oliver asks about timing on a rounded, metal-frame glass canopy that will support the front-door sign. "It has to look like we're in Paris," he insists.
"Four weeks would be a miracle," Piatkowski warns. "Six to eight weeks is worst-case."
Oliver is not amused. The sign has become something of an obsession, and he wants to see it well before opening day. He knows from the Bofinger experience that sophisticated diners don't take well to
second-class knockoffs. Bofinger was meant to evoke a turn-of-the-century Paris bistro. But to the well-travelled gourmets it was meant to attract, it fell short of the mark. "Bofinger did it right for 90% of the Canadian public," Oliver says. "For the 10% who actually counted, it didn't."
The renovation isn't the only cause for concern this day. Bonacini is beginning to worry about staffing, which stands at two -- Palubiski and the recently hired chef, a 32-year-old Englishman named Frank Dodd who, unfortunately, will need several weeks to clear immigration. At a meeting three weeks earlier, Bonacini had pressed managers of Auberge, Canoe and Jump to draw recruits from their troops. "I think you'll agree that we don't want to open Biff's with a green crew," he urged. "The Jump opening was disastrous. I remember comping [offering a complimentary meal to]a party of 45 because they were appalled at the service."
Three weeks before the Sept. 14 target and there's talk at the Tuesday construction meeting of postponing the opening. The bartop samples have arrived, but Piatkowski, the zinc guy, doesn't know if he can create the special raised bullnose trim requested by Herczegh, a detail-obsessed woman who smiles little and whom Oliver has brought on board because of a very important credit on her CV: the late Fenton's, Toronto's first great fashionable restaurant.
"I don't want drinks to fall into people's laps," Herczegh insists.
"Please give me until tomorrow to give you a final on that," Piatkowski says.
The kitchen is still a work in progress, equipped with too many salad fridges from the Boston Tavern days and not enough meat storage or equipment for making that cornerstone of French cuisine: stock. Bonacini and Dodd only partly remedied the situation weeks earlier by finding a secondhand 60-gallon steam kettle at a used-equipment warehouse referred to in the trade as the restaurant graveyard.
There are other things to worry about. The heating and ventilation system has gone haywire, imbuing Biff's space with all the warmth of a meat locker. On this point, Oliver chooses to play hardball. He warns the landlord that the deal is off if the system is not fixed and upgraded at the landlord's expense.
A new opening date is scheduled for mid-October. Oliver decides that's realistic enough now to begin the marketing campaign, which consists of sending out 2,000 postcards to the company's customer mailing list, including 500 private-dining customers. Posters are also set up prominently on easels at Canoe, Jump and Auberge.
Eleven days past the originally scheduled lunch opening and about 50 of the 71-member staff have been hired. Oliver is starting to panic because he's paid out about $60,000 in salaries with no revenue to show for it. The good news is, the Chandon bar concept has gone ahead, but not before Chandon's Ontario distributor pored over the province's liquor laws to make sure it didn't violate any regulations.
Now Oliver is sitting in the company offices with Dodd, Palubiski and sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod to iron out the menu. Bonacini has decided to abandon the "Asian twist," much to Dodd's apparent relief. Now, it's French bistro with, in Bonacini's words, "a British sensibility." Bonacini is excited about opening seven days a week, especially for Sunday brunch, which is rare for non-hotel restaurants in the downtown core and should help distinguish Biff's.
They agree on such rustic French classics as coq au vin ($19) and loin of veal ($28), and more modern twists such as potted chicken-liver parfait ($10.75 for an appetizer portion). Dodd has heard that Toronto diners don't like to linger, so he's gone heavy on the lunch menu with such ready-to-serve fare as rabbit rillette (a variation on paté) and soup. Those dishes also steer clear of what Bonacini calls Toronto menu clichés such as rack of lamb and crème brûlée.
It's Friday, Oct. 13, three days before the Monday opening. A handful of friends are scheduled to show for a practice lunch even though the place appears far from ready. The banquette that runs like an artery down the 96-seat dining room arrived only yesterday. But there's still no sign of the three semi-circular upholstered booths that will fill out the back wall. They eventually arrive Monday at 11 a.m., "through the front door, just ahead of our first guests," Bonacini says. Oliver's front-door canopy is getting final touches back at the metalwork shop.
The zinc bar is in place, a close call given that it was sent back weeks ago to be refinished because Oliver didn't think the surface had the right "Parisian" patina. That was after the general contractor, under Oliver's orders, threatened a carpentry subcontractor with a $1,000-a-day penalty should the millwork above the bar not arrive before the delicate zinc bar was to be fastened in place. (It did.)
For the benefit of the 35 staff who've been asked to show up early for the dry run, Oliver has brought in a guest speaker to deliver a pre-lunch pep talk, journalist Sarah Hampson. She recites a story she's written about a woman in a "post-European funk" flirting with a man over lunch at a "fictional" new Toronto restaurant, Biff's. The idea is to convey that restaurants are places "where love affairs, business deals and friendships begin," she says. "It was important for the staff to get it," Oliver tells me later. "I want people who eat lunch at Biff's to say, 'It's 3:30 and I don't give a shit, I'm going to stay for another glass of wine.'"
Biff's finally opens for dinner the week of Oct. 23, more than one month late. Oliver is worried about the cost overruns. The original start-up budget of $600,000 has grown to $750,000, which includes a formidable $100,000 in salaries. But business is steady thanks to the promotional postcards and Bay Street's active word of mouth. A glowing review in the National Post creates a surge in traffic. The private-party rooms are booking up.
Oliver visits the restaurant each day, circulating around the dining room, greeting familiar customers and introducing himself to new, unfamiliar ones. "How are the portions?" he occasionally asks. "Is the music too loud?"
On a Friday night in November, Biff's is packed with fame and money. Martin Short interrupts his animated discussion with Eugene Levy to take a cellphone call. Oliver is working the room, shaking hands and beaming that broad smile. The Globe's review will appear the next morning under the heading, Biff's Vaults to the Top of the Bistro Class. When Joanne Kates had come in the week before, a hostess made sure her party of seven was moved from a Siberian table near the entrance to one of the private rooms.
The final menu has been edited to appeal to the gourmet mainstream: Crème brûlée makes its inevitable appearance. The average diner is spending $55 a person for dinner, including alcohol. At this rate, Biff's will do $5 million in its first year, Oliver projects, a full $1 million better than planned.
Asked what he thinks of the outdoor canopy, which seems barely noticeable next to the neon of Shopsy's, Oliver grins and shakes his head. "I wanted it to look like the Paris Métro, and the guy who's doing it, unfortunately he doesn't have a clue." Not to worry, though. Oliver had already spoken to the manufacturer and the sign would be jazzed up with new fixtures. "I like to think that every restaurant is a work in progress," he says, smiling.