A New Management Team Leads Aquilini Restaurant Group to New Heights


I have a few different roles,” says Michael Doyle, a broad smile stretching across his face. “My colleagues would introduce me as president of the Aquilini Restaurant Group — but the truth is we rarely talk about Aquilini ‘the company’ itself because it has so many umbrella companies within it.”

The Aquilini Investment Group, a private, family-run business founded almost 50 years ago by Luigi Aquilini is a diverse Vancouver-based company now helmed by Francesco Aquilini. With holdings in real estate, sports and entertainment, development and renewable energies, it is best known for its ownership of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and the Rogers Arena. In 2014, Aquilini added foodservice to its portfolio with the purchase of Toptable Restaurant Group, which comprises five well-reviewed luxury outlets — Araxi, Blue Water Cafe, CinCin, Thierry and West — and formed the Aquilini Restaurant Group.

After a 10-year career with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Doyle joined Canucks Sports & Entertainment at the beginning of the 2011/’12 season in the capacity of EVP and arena general manager in charge of 1,200 food-and-beverage staff. In 2014, he was named president of Toptable Group, where he continued his proven track record of designing, restructuring — and then remaking — that very umbrella.

“Michael has a unique skillset and experience that complements our talented team at Toptable,” says Victor de Bonis, COO and Alternate Governor, Canucks Sports & Entertainment. “We strive every day to continue the long tradition of Toptable’s unparalleled level of hospitality, which we think sets our restaurants apart. Michael and his team have maintained that tradition while continuing to elevate the experience for our guests.”

For Doyle, that translates into creating the ultimate food experience — whether the venue is high-end or a so-called ‘low’ sports venue or arena. In fact, removing the traditional understanding of those terms is an integral part of the company’s success.

Doyle brought new inspiration to the typically stale sports-venue food offerings of pizza, popcorn and hot dogs. In essence, he broke the mould. Take for instance, the menu innovation at the in-house food-and-beverage operation at Canucks Sports & Entertainment’s Rogers Arena, the Vancouver-based venue that Aquilini Group purchased from Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment in July of 2014. To kick-start the culinary inspiration, Doyle recommended the entire Rogers Arena team of chefs visit arenas in New York and California to see what was being featured on the menus. “This was part of what we call ‘best practices,”’ explains Doyle. “I really believe it’s essential for chefs to understand the clientele — and in this case — the sports fan. You’ve got to constantly search for clues to anticipate what your clients want.”

For Doyle’s team, that meant perfecting the prime-rib sandwich, priced at $14, the ingenious twist on an old favourite that became its number-2-selling menu item last year — outselling everything but popcorn. “We worked with a local bakery to source the absolutely perfect bun and bought the best prime rib we could find [from local butchers],” says Doyle. Best practices paid off.

But that’s not without taking risks — something Doyle is not shy to talk about. At Rogers Arena, he experimented with an East versus West menu — the lobster roll, featuring Maritime lobster on a butter-basted bun with sweet pickles and kettle potato chips ($14) versus the salmon roll. “I don’t know many arenas that experiment with these kind of items,” he says. “Though the lobster roll was a huge hit, the salmon roll didn’t do as well. Sometimes you just have to play with things that don’t always work.”

This year, it’s replacing the failed menu item with a prawn roll to see if it fares any better. The prawn roll will feature sweet plump prawns, in a butter-toasted roll with sweet pickles and kettle chips. The decision seems equally risky but shattering expectations of what arena food can and should be is something that became Doyle’s trademark when he oversaw the food-and-beverage operations at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

He also introduced a new array of quick-service brands, such as Pizza Hut and Smoke’s Poutinerie, as well as more than 180 new menu items that include home-cultivated brands, such as Carve, Catch, Melt, Smoke Shack, Swirl and Chop — small venues that feature fan favourites such as the never-fail cheddar Steamer’s Dog.

As though in tandem with the menu rejuvenation, Doyle was also part of the team that set out to renovate the stadium itself at a cost of more than $10 million. Four kitchens were rebuilt last summer with the main kitchen being completely redesigned and equipped with a brand new butchery, bakery and reconstructed warehouse. “We’ve added over 11,000 sq. ft. to our L100 and L300 concourse,” says Doyle, adding fans will now enjoy an all-new concourse expansion featuring exciting new food-and-beverage options and other amenities. “We wanted to create a better experience for our fans,” he explains. This included an entire floor of washrooms — a facilities increase of 35 per cent. “Not sexy, I know,” he laughs, “but if you’ve ever been to a stadium, you know how vital this service is.”
Over the past year, the group has also spearheaded the highly successful new “suite format” now reinvented as the Loge Club. Rather than inviting 14 to 20 company guests to a suite that works on a buffet-style premise, Doyle chose to create a more intimate — and upscale — VIP setting. The Loge Club has six mini-suites within a restaurant-like environment, so clients can either stay within their area or network with other suite areas. ‘“What I love about the Loge Club is that it’s full-service, very much like a club, but you are not necessarily restricted to your own private area,” he explains. “It really is the best of both worlds.” And premium, about as luxury as an arena setting can get. A full season at the Loge Club costs $111,240, which includes all events at the arena — not just hockey — and dinner for six people.

Then there are those clients who might crave the very opposite of an intimate setting. Enter the brand new, $8.5 million state-of-the-art Rogers Arena Sports Bar, slated to open before the end of the year. This audio/visual one-of-a-kind experience drops the sports-lover right in the centre of the game itself with three floor-to-ceiling, 110 HD displays, surround sound, Vancouver’s largest bar built to date, and of course, a premium menu still in development.

The Rogers Arena has also upped its beverage offering, bringing in several local micro-breweries, including Goose Island Beer and Honkers Ale, in addition to its big league sponsors, Labatt and Budweiser.
On the wine front, the beverage team has also seized the opportunity to embrace a new technology — wines on tap. Vancouver-based Fresh Tap works with various Canadian wineries such as Joie Farm and Le Vieux Pin to transfer the product into a keg format — one that lasts a minimum of 30 days.

In addition to giving fans more options, Fresh Tap actually saved the Rogers Arena money since if even a single customer wants a glass of Chardonnay near the end of a game, that bottle has to be opened and could remain unfinished. “What I love about this technology is that it keeps the wine fresh and doesn’t leave us with a half-opened bottle of wine,” he says.

Doyle’s proficiency with anticipating the culinary whims of the sports fan hasn’t dulled his knack for discovering trends in Vancouver’s most high-end restaurants, such as Araxi’s Longtable Dining Series, which took place earlier this year. The most recent instalment occurred in September just beyond the Whistler Mountains, in the centre of a farmer’s field in Pemberton, B.C. “This is the most exciting al-fresco dining experience I’ve ever hosted or attended,” he says. “It’s absolutely magical — the mountainous setting, the 600-foot table set for 300 guests, the local cuisine.” At a cost of $175 per person, the once-in-a-lifetime culinary experiences promote partnerships between local farmers and Vancouver’s most renowned chefs since the menu is a collaboration between the two.

Toptable also continues to challenge its culinary teams by inviting celebrity chefs from different countries to host events. For CinCin’s 25-year celebration, for example, and to coincide with its purchase of a new Grillworks Infierno, a two-metre rotisserie, the company invited Argentina’s Francis Mallmann, a gaucho grilling-aficionado, to celebrate with street-side demonstrations and food tastings.

In addition to all of its business success, Aquilini is committed to giving back to the community and takes a very active role in its support of approximately 70 local, regional and national charities and not-for-profit organizations. As founding members of Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium-based conservation program that promotes sustainable seafood practices, Toptable Group restaurants and its chefs have long championed sustainable seafood practices. In fact, in honour of the 10th anniversary of Ocean Wise, each Toptable Group restaurant showcased B.C.’s finest sustainable seafood products throughout the 2015 summer season.

Toptable Group venues and its 400 staff also support the B.C. Hospitality Foundation (BCHF), which provides a financial safety net to support ill and injured food, beverage and hospitality industry members in British Columbia, by donating the proceeds from special events and initiatives to this extraordinary cause, in addition to supporting fundraising events organized by BCHF.

This year, the Rogers Arena Hospitality team helped provide an outstanding experience at the inaugural Boys Club Network Golf event, helping to raise more than $250,000. Chefs and staff have also donated time and expertise to the Jack Milford Event, Dice & Ice, and assisted with raising funds for the Canucks Autism Network and Canucks Family Education Centre. Beyond fundraising, significant donations of food, deemed safe to eat, are provided after each event to Angel Food Runners to help feed the Vancouver homeless. Over the holidays, 45 turkeys were sent through the Oppenheimer Network to help those in need.

But for Doyle and his team, nothing is as gratifying as the Harvest Dinner at the Rogers Arena where more than 2,000 of Vancouver’s most needy are served by the arena’s staff and management. “It’s a free meal for people from shelters or the homeless in the surrounding community,” says Doyle. “We put a game up on the screens as well to give them part of that experience. It’s the one event that we’re most proud of.”

Written By: Jennifer Febbraro

Volume 48, Number 9

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