Two years after Ion Aimers sold his popular Ottawa gourmet burger chain, The Works, he's trying to do the same thing for pizza as he did for scorched meat on a bun: Give an upscale reboot to a food group known for being greasy, cheap and junky.
Last month, he opened the second outlet of his latest restaurant concept, ZaZaZa, in Ottawa's yuppiefied Glebe neighbourhood, and he plans to open three or four more in the city's other main urban areas.
"I'm always looking for opportunities where people are not doing things well and I think they can be done better," said the 54-year-old Mr. Aimers, sitting in the Glebe restaurant clad in a black T-shirt, shorts and slip-on sandals, on a scorching June day, 10 days after the opening.
"I think this concept is a bit edgier, a bit more understood by a downtown crowd," added the Montreal-born Mr. Aimers, a career restaurateur who got his first big break at The Keg 30 years ago.
It's easy to get caught up in Mr. Aimers' enthusiasm. After all, successful restaurateurs are like mining promoters: Once they've hit the big score, they develop a reputation and a halo effect that follows them to their next venture.
But is one success in the restaurant business enough to guarantee another?
"I don't think that's easy to do," said Bruce Dimytosh, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based restaurant consulting firm Prism Hospitality. "This is a business that's seven days a week, almost 24/7. To be successful, it's a combination of a great concept, great people and execution as you figure out how to bring all these things together."
Mr. Aimers' new restaurant has already captured the kind of attention that other new restaurants would kill for. But that only works to a point. "It will break down barriers for first-time guests and get people in the door," said Stephen Beckta, one of Ottawa's most successful restaurateurs, who is opening a third eatery of his own this fall to add to his popular upscale restaurants Beckta and Play.
The challenge for any restaurant, Mr. Beckta added, "is to create lifetime regulars who feel a strong emotional connection to the restaurant."
The idea behind ZaZaZa is similar to The Works – which Mr. Aimers built up to six locations over nine years before selling to Toronto's Fresh Brands Inc. in 2010 for an undisclosed amount – in two ways. First, Mr. Aimers's menu features a busy, eye-catching selection of 26 high-end pizzas far removed from "the slab of bread with three times the amount of cheese someone wants with loosely thrown-on toppings like you get at your corner pizza joint," he says.
Like the burgers at The Works, which he turned into a beloved local institution, his pies have distinctive names (including "Bo Derek" and "Shangri-La-Di-Da") and ingredients (one pizza features coriander-yogurt drizzle and tandoori chicken, while the aptly named "Scary Roommate" is covered with Kraft Dinner and hot dogs). "We've just tried to say, What do people like to eat? Let's put it on a pizza."
He has also given the restaurant a theme. The Works was decorated like a factory, with steel, bricks, gauges and vault doors. "Meat over fire was very basic to me – industrial working man."
With ZaZaZa, the idea is "pizza as art." The restaurant is adorned with glitzy chandeliers, stage lights, patterned damask wallpaper and giant gold-framed wall mirrors. Menus are printed on mock playbills, and a royal red stage curtain frames the counter opening to the pizza kitchen, where patrons have clear sight lines to the "players" making their pies, as if performing on a stage.
The Glebe restaurant, following the 2010 opening of the fist ZaZaZa in The Works' original location in the New Edinburgh neighbourhood, cost a staggering $500,000 to open, easily four to five times what it would cost to open a pizza joint. "Pizza and burgers are both foods I like, but I didn't like the format and presentation" elsewhere. "They were looked at as garbage food for kids. Here it's definitely an adult food when presented properly and in the right context."
But, as Mr. Aimers and others in the restaurant business will tell you, the secret to success is more than offering tasty conversation pieces in a nice setting; if anything, they maintain the food and decor are almost beside the point. "Food and drinks are merely tools for caring for people," said Mr. Beckta. "At the end of the day, hospitality is what we do and what we offer. People need to feel like you're on their side and care about their happiness."
Adds Mr. Dimytosh: "You have to be able to deliver a great guest experience regardless of your concept, and you have to be consistent."
Mr. Aimers's view of service is inspired by his view that too few restaurant employees in North America view their jobs as careers, but rather as temporary positions to pay their way to something better. "I think it's a very healthy career, if you have the right mindset."
He tells his employees that making eye contact is crucial, as well as saying "I'm sorry" to a dissatisfied guest before fixing the problem.
Bending over backwards to satisfy the customer is table stakes. "I compare it to having your grandmom to your apartment for Easter dinner," he said. " You put on a shirt and a tie, cook food you normally wouldn't, make it the best you can, welcome her at the door, make sure she's comfortable, look after every need. "Then she calls you the next day and says 'You did a great job.'
"I think all restaurateurs want the guest to call them over to the table and say – 'Thank you for a fantastic meal.'"
Special to The Globe and Mail
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