Hospitality Heroes: Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment


Earlier this year, when COVID-19 turned the world upside down, many businesses were forced to shutter their doors while others pivoted accordingly. For Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), whose focus on fun has helped build a thriving business while entertaining Toronto’s sports and music fans, the magnitude of the closure was immense, given its stable of products includes three high-volume restaurants, as well as concessions and corporate suites. The cancellation of both the NHL and NBA seasons was a grim reality for the team of employees who work at the Scotiabank arena. But, instead of sitting idly by and waiting for business to return, the brigade of 22 chefs turned its efforts to a new reality and, within days, the arena was re-purposed into a huge production kitchen feeding thousands of people in need.

“We broke open an emergency plan where we shifted everybody we had here into rescue mode and donated 27,000 lbs. of food on that day,” explains Chris Zielinski, Culinary director, MLSE.

The same situation unfolded across the city at restaurants and shelters, explains Zielinski. “All of a sudden there’s all this partially cooked food but nobody to cook it, nobody to serve it. That’s where the idea sprung out of,” says Zielinski. “Once I heard that, I said, we have something here that most of the city doesn’t have and that is space. We have the space to actually socially distance in the kitchen and in the arena.”

Without skipping a beat, MLSE transformed the mammoth arena into Toronto’s largest meal-production facility, with access to six restaurant kitchens through the building, as well as the kitchen at BMO, which is also operated by MLSE. Almost overnight, it crafted a large-scale meal program to produce and deliver between 10,000 to 12,000 meals a day to community agencies, including Second Harvest, the Scott Mission and various other groups, to support the city’s most vulnerable as well as to thank Toronto’s frontline health workers and their families for their efforts.

Being community minded isn’t a foreign concept for MLSE — it’s actually part of its DNA. The company’s efforts to support the community are well known through its relationships with various social agencies, including Second Harvest and La Tablée des Chefs, whose programs have allowed the arena to increase the number of pounds of rescued food in one year from 20,000 to 50,000. “A lot of our staff were already super engaged with Second Harvest. A lot of them hate seeing food thrown out, like I do. We instantly had cheerleaders all over the building.”

Cooking up huge volumes of meals required a huge production area, which shifted to the floor of the arena where employees and volunteers worked alongside each other (respecting physical-distancing parameters) to package up the meals, with about 250 dishes assembled hourly.

As many of its part-time staff had to be laid off, a complement of 75 full-time F&B managers were “the ones who’ve been carrying the load on this,” says Zielinski, adding the initiative gave them a purpose during a difficult time.
Despite the challenges that surfaced along the way, Zielinski says the buy-in from the industry and the city was amazing. “This was truly a Team-Toronto effort.”

While the initiative was intended to end on June 15th, with the exception of the period leading up to the Stanley Cup playoffs, when Toronto was designated as one of four hub cities, it’s still going strong. “For me, we’ve gone through all this work and developed this great system; we’ve got a lot of people helping us with donations. If the need is there, we’ll continue doing it.”

Zielinski is thankful for the lessons this experience has taught him. “We have a lot of caring people at this company; we get the devotion of the entire city. The number of people who want to give back, who want to be part of something great, blew me away. You don’t know it until it happens.”

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Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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