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Toronto restaurant balances social mission with economic return

Hawthorne, a Toronto restaurant specializing in local cuisine, opened in 2012 as an initiative of the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC). The HWTC is a non-profit organization with a mission to train and support workers in Toronto’s hospitality sector


Hawthorne, a Toronto restaurant specializing in local cuisine, opened in 2012 as an initiative of the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC). The HWTC is a non-profit organization with a mission to train and support workers in Toronto's hospitality sector. Hawthorne has two quite different mandates: The first is to provide hands-on real world training for people who are experiencing barriers to employment; the second is to ensure a high quality bistro experience for downtown Toronto diners. Danielle Olsen, the executive director of HWTC, says that "it is essential for us to balance the tension between Hawthorne's social mission and the economic reality of running a restaurant."

But how are they able to do this?

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Founded in 2002, and modelled after similar ventures in Las Vegas, New York and Boston, the HWTC is a partnership between the Hospitality Workers' union, and major hotel chains. The organization provides practical skills training for people who are receiving social assistance, such as people with disabilities, or refugees who lack a social network in Canada and may be living in transitional housing.

Initially, all of the training took place in existing hotels and restaurants, but in 2012 HWTC moved into a building on Richmond St East., owned by the City of Toronto and designated as part of the Regent Park Redevelopment Initiative. The advisory group decided to develop the space into a full service restaurant – Hawthorne – as a revenue-generating and training initiative.

Around this time, Ms. Olsen was recruited to become the organization's executive director. Previously at Social Capital Partners, she had experience developing and managing public-private partnerships aimed at training objectives, and realized that the key to Hawthorne's success was to find ways to achieve their economic goals while achieving their social goals.


Ms. Olsen explains that there are three key practices they follow to achieve the balance they need. The first practice is to make the training relevant by matching it with market demand. From the beginning, the Hawthorne menu has emphasized local, seasonable and sustainable food. All sauces and spreads are made in-house. "Not only is Hawthorne's theme consistent with what our customers want," says Ms. Olsen, but we are providing our trainees with the knowledge and skills about local Ontario produce that future employers value."

The second practice is to ensure that full-time staff buy into the social mission and are able to incorporate it in their day-to-day work. Ms. Olsen points out that running a kitchen successfully is difficult. "You have to manage costs, food quality, consistency and the guest experience." And at Hawthorne, added to that pressure is a work force of inexperienced; albeit, highly motivated trainees, who have varied life experiences and skills. "It's important to find full-time employees who thrive in this situation."

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The third practice is to be creative in growing training opportunities, because, as Ms. Olsen emphasizes, "our primary objective is to maximize the number of people trained and subsequently employed." It would seem that training opportunities could be limited in a 45-seat bistro, but Hawthorne's founders were farsighted and constructed a kitchen that is much larger than restaurants of the same size would have. To take advantage of this excess kitchen capacity, HWTC has recently launched a catering business in the restaurant. "Catering is great for training," states Ms. Olsen. "The work is fast-paced and repetitive and so trainees become quick and consistent, and those are qualities that employers are looking for."


Hawthorne is just under two years old, and it has already trained over 40 people, with three-quarters of them successfully transitioning to paid employment within the hospitality sector. Hotel partners are increasingly contacting HWTC when they have jobs to fill. The goal of the catering business is to generate profit to re-invest in providing competitive training and work experience for new entrants to the industry. It is only two months old, so these are still early days, but the preliminary results look encouraging, with revenue doubling each month.

Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.

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