TORONTO — In the ’80s, being a chef rarely garnered the same attention it does today. “We were classified as domestic help — it was not glamorous,” chuckled Mark McEwan, who took to the stage during Kostuch Media’s Icons and Innovators breakfast event this morning at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, to share the highs and lows of his business with chefs, students and restaurant operators.
The restaurateur, who, at 25, was the youngest executive chef at Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel, is now at the helm of a business empire and brand, which includes four restaurants (North 44°, Bymark, One Restaurant and Fabbrica), a booming retail business and consulting and catering gigs at the Toronto Pearson International Airport.
His longest-running venture, North 44°, now in its 25th year of operation, remains successful by offering diners an “old-school,” white-tablecloth restaurant experience. “A lot of the new restaurants have moved in one direction, but I believe being ourselves and having an identity is the important thing, and, in doing that, you become new. You become unique to people, and you can reacquaint yourself with the young clientele,” McEwan explains. “I have no interest in changing; I want to be more like ourselves and better at it.”
But, despite the success North 44° has afforded the chef, he’s also had his share of bad luck, including the time he signed the Bymark deal two weeks before 9/11. “I don’t think I washed, changed my pajamas or shaved for an entire week. I sat in my pajamas on the couch and watched the news. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m a genius, I just signed a deal for a restaurant at the base of a 54-storey [TD] Tower.’” But, the chef forged ahead, opening the restaurant, which is now in its 12th year of operation.
When he launched his retail operation, McEwan, at Shops at Don Mills three years ago, he hit another snag. “I underestimated the whole notion of retail and the complexity of it, and the gross margin, relative to the labour cost. There were really no examples of a grocery P&L unless I was to break into Pusateri’s and rob their office, which I chose not to do,” he says, adding the business lost money for three years before he mastered the operation. It’s now on track to reach $20 million in sales this year, a 22-per-cent bump in overall sales compared to last year.
Next to his growing retail operation, which is expanding as a new McEwan location is added at the TD Centre in Toronto, catering comprises an estimated 10 per cent of his business. It’s a strategy to diversify and uncover new opportunities that keeps the chef busy and in business. “I’ve always been the type to look at how to generate more revenue in an operation. What can you do that is complimentary to what you’re already doing that will work for you?” And, that philosophy seems to have worked.