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Much depends on lunch Add to ...

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.

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