Q&A With Celebrity Chef Mark McEwan

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Mark McEwan — chef and owner of Toronto’s North 44, Bymark, One Restaurant, Fabbrica and an eponymous grocery store — shares his business highs and lows in this excerpt from F&H’s Icons and Innovators breakfast series

Rosanna Caira: What made you want to become a chef?

Mark McEwan: I had worked in the restaurant business as a young teenager. I had a basic understanding of what the industry was, and when I finished high school I wanted to take the year off, so I decided: why not cook for a year? I went to every hotel and knocked on doors until I found a chef who would take me on as an apprentice. If it didn’t work out, hotel management was my second choice; I’d been accepted to [school in] Guelph [Ont.], and I would go the next year. But I landed in the business, and it felt good…. I remember when I told my family I was going to be a cook it was complete silence at the table. So that’s how glamorous my start was. I didn’t have a mother who was like Julia Child, I did not have parents who took me around the world to sample food.

RC: What early lessons have stood the test of time?

MM: Joe Vonlanthen [the late chef who worked at the Constellation Hotel, where I began my career,] was well organized — running numbers, managing staff, managing a herd of apprentices instead of hiring cooks. He had that advantage of having almost a zero labour cost in his kitchen, which made him the star. [It was] a bit controversial in its day among other chefs, but he had a style of management that taught you how to run the office. I was with him for six years, and then the opportunity came up at The Sutton Place when I was 24. I went in as executive sous, and they made me head chef when I was 25. I had the ground skills to manage the office and the business.

RC: When did you open your first restaurant?

MM: I was chef at The Sutton Place for three years, and in ’85 I had the itch to do something. [I had] been chatting with Franco Prevedello. He had the famous restaurant named Pronto [which I was interested in co-owning…. So, I] sold the sports car, hawked my parents’ condo — I got them to sign for me — and bought a 1/3 partnership in the restaurant. It was a great start for me, and I built North 44 in ’90.

RC: North 44 was your first real solo experience. What made you take that leap?

MM: I was young and full of energy, and I was really pissed at Franco. He promised he wouldn’t open a restaurant within a certain proximity, and he opened Centro, which was the biggest, boldest restaurant Canada had ever seen, and it pulled a little of our business away, [so], I thought, ‘I’m going to open right across the street from him.’

RC: How has North 44 been doing so well for 25 years, especially when fine-dining restaurants are waning in popularity?

MM: We have a history with people, and there is a consistency…. So, you become new and unique to people, and you can reacquaint yourself with the younger clientele. I have no interest in changing it. I want to be more like ourselves and better at it.

RC: What made you open Bymark?

MM: The adventure [of it]. I signed that deal, and the planes hit the [World Trade Center] in New York two weeks after. That’s when I first became acquainted with CNN. I don’t think I washed, shaved or changed my pyjamas for a week; I sat 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 tower.’ After sitting there for two weeks, I thought ‘We’re just going to do it. I’m not going to blink at this.’ And it’s the best thing we ever did. The downtown core was really starting to move. There were no restaurants in the core, and all of a sudden it started to happen quickly. It’s been a great 12-year story.

RC: What made you want to open One restaurant in a hotel such as The Hazelton?

MM: I was amazed by what they wanted to do with the hotel. I had a great opportunity, especially with the patio outside. It was a gamble, because there were no proven success stories in the area [of Yorkville in Toronto]. People scratched their head and wondered why I was doing it, but it worked out. It opened August 25th, right before [The Toronto International] film festival. They handed me my head. Our first month of business we did $1.58 million in sales.

RC: Was it a culinary stretch to open Fabbrica as an uptown Italian concept?

MM: I guess you could say that. I have always loved Italian food, and I wanted to do a strict Italian restaurant. Did I think the location was risky? Knowing what I know now, I would say, yes. It’s been a tougher area to get started in, but it’s shown itself to be a very good area. I like that we have been specific to a certain style of cooking. We didn’t try to reinvent it — never claimed we invented the recipes, just that we are good practitioners of them.

RC: How much did you spend on that restaurant?

MM: My finished cost was $2.4 million; $400,000 more than I budgeted.

RC: Many chef business operators don’t always succeed financially. How do you make it work?

MM: I wouldn’t say my record is perfect. You build restaurants, they have lifespans, and they change, and you go back and re-energize them. I lost money [in the McEwan grocery store] for the first three-and-a-half years. I wrote cheques out of my own account to teach myself the grocery business. You make it work. I underestimated retail and the complexity of the grocery margin relative to the labour cost, because I had never done a grocery [profit-and-loss statement]. Some of these lessons are hard fought, but they are the best lessons. You learn to run your numbers and manage it. The retail is probably the worst thing I ever did for the first three years and will probably be the best thing I’ve done long-term.

RC: What food trends are implemented at your business?

MM: It’s more about the whole package: the service, the image, how the front of the house and the back of the house sync, how you feel as a client when you’re in the space. Today, you want to differentiate yourself, be confident on the service side and have a great offer.

RC: Finding good people is hard. How have you cultivated culinary teams?

MM: You have to pay people well, and you have to treat them well. You have to have a fair system of give and take, and give them a clear objective of what you’re looking for. You keep an open dialogue. Sometimes the people you overlook turn out to be the strongest. You have to be very observant and motivate your managers to be the same. And you have to reward consistently; you have to reward good behaviour, and you have to get rid of bad behaviour.

RC: Tell us about your catering business.

MM: It’s a big part of our business now. We have three categories of catering. We do event catering through North 44, and that started out of necessity. I opened North 44 in 1990, so if you want to know when the financial market is about to collapse, ask me if I’m opening a major restaurant. That’s why I started smoking salmon and selling it to retail, baking bread and selling it — to make the back door pay as well as the front door. We built that business in late ’91…. Then at [McEwan], we have a concept where you shoot ready-to-go food up the office towers. Those categories drive those efficiencies of physical operations and help max labour efficiencies. It helps to build another revenue source. I’ve always been the type to wonder how you can generate more revenue in an operation. What can you do that is complementary to what you’re already doing? That helps extend your brand in another category.

RC: What percentage does catering comprise of your total sales?

MM: Maybe 10 per cent, but that’s a key 10 per cent. When you can build a business around your existing infrastructure, and you don’t have to build infrastructure, you gain skill. If I had to go out and build an operation to accommodate my catering, I’d have to do three times the amount of sales to generate the same amount of profit. So you always have to think about efficiencies and how you operate your food costs — what’s your gross margin? How can you bring different revenue in? Then you look at your labour force and think how you can maximize the efficiencies of your labour force.

RC: How is the McEwan grocery faring?

MM: The store is where I wanted to be when it first opened, and it took us three years to get there. We’re up on true store sales 10 per cent; we’re up on overall sales 22 per cent over the
last year.

RC: To what do you attribute that?

MM: Being better at it. Developing more revenue in other areas, diversifying the revenue stream. The store will do $20 million this year. I thought we would have done $20 million in our second year. The gross margin is where I want it to be now. We’ve understood how to manage labour. Profit and retail is hard fought, but once you get to a certain scale, to that tipping point, that’s when you really see potential. The new store in [downtown Toronto’s] TD Centre will start construction November 1st. My idea there is to max out my production facilities at the existing store.

RC: So, you’ll use the existing store for production?

MM: For about 30 per cent of the offer. We will build in efficiencies; it allows me to have a leaner production facility downtown, so it’s more efficient for build-out and cost and use of space. And we can manage our product beautifully. So all the new items we’re developing now will be consistent in both stores, shipped out fresh daily. That exercise will add an increase in sales to the original store and create efficiencies in the new store, [which will sell] 80 per cent prepared offer, 20 per cent grocery offer.

RC: Are you planning additional retail units?

MM: I’d like to see four or five stores placed around the city, and then you can also look at Calgary if you wanted to look outside your territory.

RC: Where is the focus for growth in the future?

MM: Our new retail operation will add 20-per-cent growth to the company. As for restaurants, I want to watch the city for a while. There has been exponential growth in the restaurant business. We’re looking at strengthening our profile with staff and training and cooking better; that’s our goal for 2015. I’m working on two deals now for potential retail. There is lots of potential. I know where I want to be in the city. You just have to be patient.

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