Canadians love Mexican food almost as much as they love pizza. That’s what Andrew Richmond, CEO of restaurant-development company Monarch & Misfits, discovered after launching a pop-up store selling artwork and tacos. A work trip to Silicon Valley saw him visiting San Francisco’s Mission District, where bar-based taquerias dotted the streets. The inspiration for La Carnita hit him while driving home — a missing piece in the Toronto culinary landscape.
“There weren’t a lot of places doing a modern take on Mexican cuisine and I loved the urban theme — authentic but contemporary,” says Richmond. The La Carnita vibe is casual and creative all at once. “I wanted a place that people could feel comfortable going to multiple times a week,” says Richmond. “Tacos are kind of like canvases — the options are never ending.”
As far as origin stories go, Monarch & Misfits started from a place of love, specifically, as its website notes, “from our love of three things — art, music and food.” Richmond went to art school, after all. With four brands under the Monarch & Misfits umbrella group — La Carnita, Sweet Jesus, Home of the Brave and Good Fortune — the company is now expanding exponentially. Sweet Jesus (under the moniker Sweet Salvation) will be opening in Dubai in 2018 and La Carnita is slated to open at the Baltimore Washington International Airport around the same time.
But let’s rewind to the early days. Back in 2011, Richmond worked as a design director at Toronto’s OneMethod Digital and Design, a boutique advertising agency he co-founded with Amin Todai. Richmond used to cook for him and his wife outside of work — and they would often flirt with the idea of starting a restaurant. The concept for La Carnita was forged in their design studio. Since then, it’s become a phenomenon, expanding to eight restaurants in the last five years. Their trick to starting and maintaining a buzz was the travelling pop-up method, where they would literally launch one every two weeks for a solid year.
“I recommend it to young people who want to try out a new model because it allows you to test out a concept with low overhead,” says Richmond. “You also learn a lot creating 600-person dinners.” La Carnita, the restaurant, by contrast, caters to 125 to 275 people per evening. Social media was key to building a following and generating enthusiasm for the concept itself.
A year of pop-ups led to settling down. An ongoing interest in the brand meant a graffiti-tagged brick-and-mortar location (complete with an alley aesthetic of concrete walls and chicken-coop lighting fixtures) was an inevitability. Terry Tsianos, then president and CEO of Pegasus Group, came into the picture to bring his foodservice industry knowledge and expertise. “His role was pivotal,” says Richmond. “Because he really gave our experimental pop-ups the structure needed to build our business model.” Their first restaurant was a 100-seat spot at Toronto’s College and Bathurst streets, which opened in 2012.
Critics lauded the zeitgeist of the place — hailing it as a culinary embodiment of the “now” in all its hipster-street-food reverence. No one could deny its popularity. “What we didn’t expect was for our desserts to take off like they did,” says Richmond. Their paletas (or popsicles, $4 each) were unique: raspberry with the seeds included and key-lime pie with a touch of graham crackers. They even had a limited-edition Lucky Charms’ milk paleta. How’s that for invoking hipster childhood nostalgia?
Soon after the opening of La Carnita, a new restaurant called Home of the Brave, featuring Southern-inspired American cuisine, opened at King and Portland streets. With two restaurants, Richmond says he was able to test-drive a dessert program. “We really got to know what worked and what didn’t before even starting Sweet Jesus in 2015,” says Richmond of the ice-cream concept franchise.
That said, Richmond has had his share of naysayers. “People just didn’t have faith in an ice-cream concept,” laughs Richmond. He stresses he pushed the idea forward on a gut instinct. “If it hadn’t worked, I could have been in a lot of hot water. Thankfully, it did.” The CEO of Monarch & Misfits created the soft-serve of his dreams, “I’ve always had an affinity for this dessert. We just kicked it up a notch.”
Fuelled by a social-media following, the Sweet Jesus Instagram feed alone says more than any description ever could. If Dairy Queen is the great-grandfather, this is his young, tattooed, crazy son who’s just broken out of jail. That is to say — it’s next-level soft-serve with vegan options, rolled in your choice of delicacy such as flaky almond crumb or red-velvet cake (at a cost upwards of $6.50). Even Chief Development Officer, Jeff Young, who joined the company in 2016, described the ice cream as “chef-inspired, pimped out, soft-serve.”
After helping the company scout new locations for one of the Monarch & Misfits brands, Young suggested trying La Carnita with some out-of-town colleagues. “I had never heard of it before…but I instantaneously fell in love with the entire concept,” gushes Young. “The atmosphere, the visuals and the culinary.” After dinner, Young sauntered to the back of the restaurant to try a Sweet Jesus soft-serve and was shocked to find a line-up. “This was a Sunday night in January in the middle of a snowstorm,” laughs Young. “I immediately knew that I had seen a winner of a concept.” Young reached out to business partner Tsianos to suggest his assistance in franchising Sweet Jesus and joined the organization shortly after meeting the ownership group.
Young has helped turn Sweet Jesus into a phenomenon. “We’ve opened 12 units and are experiencing explosive growth throughout Canada, including [locations at] Toronto Eaton Centre, West Edmonton Mall, Southgate Centre, Sherway Gardens, Square One, Sheppard Centre, Woodbine Centre, Markville Mall and Upper Canada Mall — with many more under development, including the Mall of America in 2018.” Deals in Florida and Hawaii are almost complete, though details have not yet been released.
“We’ve become an international brand in just a short time, which is remarkable,” says Young. Part of that has to do with franchise size. Young says a Sweet Jesus franchise only requires 1,000 sq. ft. of space to run an operation, whereas a La Carnita demands at least 3,500 to 4,000 sq. ft.
He envisions Sweet Jesus as operational around the globe, but thinks the La Carnita concept would be most successful within the North-American context. Toronto queues for Sweet Jesus can get so long the owners installed a “Snapchat Confessional,” a video booth where customers can vent their frustrations à la City TV’s former Speaker’s Corner. It’s a social-media intervention that, ironically, makes a promotional move out of having people complain. With more than 100,000 Instagram followers, Sweet Jesus’s customers are its best promoters. “I always see young people photograph and post their ice-cream cones to social media, even before that first lick,” laughs Young.
Strategically, La Carnita and Sweet Jesus are often located side-by-side. So if a customer doesn’t order from the “Dulce” section of the La Carnita menu, they will certainly find it challenging walking by Sweet Jesus without making a purchase. One thing has become clear from the Sweet Jesus venture — millennials love their soft-serve and espresso and are willing to pay big for it. A stand-alone Sweet Jesus operates out of Ottawa’s trendy ByWard Market and even Kim Kardashian stopped by for a Krusty the Cone soft-serve topped with cotton candy, fresh ground sprinkles and cotton-candy sauce. The coffee conceptions ring just as creative, such as the Miss Saigon (espresso, mulled brown-sugar syrup, milk and condensed milk) or the Burnt Marshmallow Latte.
Young says franchise location is key and units in enclosed malls is a great strategy. “It takes advantage of built-in traffic that is there and makes impulse purchases possible. It also helps maintain consistency of sales in seasonal products that can fluctuate.” The ambiance of each location is another key to the company’s success. For example, Good Fortune — the new bar at Yonge and Eglinton streets in Toronto — boasts interiors with the perfect combination of contemporary neon decor and retro, ’90s cassette-tape wallpaper. Millennial customers (its most common) appreciate the attention to detail and are willing to pay for the playful ingredients in drinks created by bar manager Justin Shiels. Drinks such as Straight Flossin’ (Dillon’s No. 7 gin, melon liqueur, Guerra blanco vermouth, lemon and Bittered Sling Lem-Marrakech bitters poured over cotton candy, $12) are popular among regulars — who have no problem dropping $14 on a drink.
Young says franchisees share the passion for its product and have helped revamp the tired notion of what a franchise can actually look like. Young’s decades-long background in franchising has helped support training and operational development. “It’s a dream of mine to be able to see young people fulfill their dreams,” says Young. “Our franchisees resonate with the product and get excited by what they are doing. We’ve done something different by giving our brand an edgy, hipster slant. It’s just outside of the mainstream notion of what a brand is supposed to be — but it works.”
Written by Jennifer Febbraro