Farmhouse Tavern’s Darcy MacDonell Shares His Entrepreneurial Path

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Volume 48, Number 2

[dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]rowing up on a farm as the son of a local politician in eastern Ontario, Darcy MacDonell watched his parents host gatherings of up to 100 guests for corn roasts, fish fries and barbecues. Hospitality and relationship building were inherent parts of his childhood, so it wasn’t a stretch when a serendipitous chain of events and acquaintances led the commerce major to follow an entrepreneurial path into hospitality.

While attending the University of Guelph in Ontario, MacDonell met Bruce McAdams, assistant professor at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and former VP of Operations at Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants in Toronto. He subsequently landed jobs managing front-of-house operations at Oliver & Bonacini, La Société bistro in Toronto and SIR Corp. based in Burlington, Ont. During this time, he developed longstanding relationships with suppliers, who literally followed him when he opened Farmhouse Tavern in June 2012 in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. Moray Tawse, founder of Tawse Winery in Vineland, Ont., frequents the restaurant for dinner; Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company is located close to MacDonell’s hometown of Alexandria, Ont.; and Junction Craft Brewing is a stone’s throw from Farmhouse Tavern. “It comes down to relationships first and foremost,” says MacDonell. “If I find a I like, I get to know the people. I’ll give someone I’ve known for years four or five listings as opposed to trying to find the newest, hottest supplier. That doesn’t interest me as much as a rapport that’s longstanding.”

A core tenet of Farmhouse Tavern’s business model and success lies in the restaurant’s Ontario-centric philosophy. “As people become more educated about the way our current food system operates, and the growing stress it puts on our environment, economy and overall health, they want to make conscious choices they feel good about,” says Tom Wade, executive chef of Farmhouse Tavern and sister restaurant, Farmer’s Daughter. “People really like that we support local farmers, prepare everything in-house and use fresh ingredients that are not shipped from another continent.”

Since MacDonell and Wade know their suppliers intimately, no money is spent on marketing — their partners spread the gospel. “Because we are proponents of everything Ontario, the local farmers, suppliers and producers like us,” MacDonell boasts. “Because we only sell Ontario wine, the people in Niagara (Ont.) love us. Because we only sell Ontario beer, the craft beer producers love us. So it’s nice when all the people you’re buying from are big fans. People go to Prince Edward County (Ont.), and they stop at Norman Hardie Winery and they hear about us. Or people in Ottawa know we sell Beau’s in Toronto.”

A thrifty philosophy — furnishing the restaurant with refurbished items and not spending money on printed menus, plastics, a website or advertising — allows MacDonell to purchase the best possible local food and drink, approximately 40 per cent of expenditures. “We save in other areas to offset,” he notes. “There’s no bussers and hostesses, so there’s some labour savings. We don’t have straws, because straws just end up in the garbage. So there’s a lot of things we don’t do.”

In that vein, plastic bags are not provided, and glass ramekins filled with ketchup or sauces are handed to take-out customers. Neighbours drop them off the next time they walk by. Also, nearly every surface at Farmhouse Tavern is chock-a-block with a quirky collection of found objects, family portraits, repurposed furniture and nostalgic mementoes from MacDonell’s family home, bringing his vision of a knick-knacky old farmhouse to life. The restaurant seats 60 in three distinct rooms, plus another 32 on the patio.

Opening costs were only $30,000, partly because the general contracting was done by a crew from the Discovery Channel’s Junk Raiders. MacDonell fortuitously met the show producers through his would-be landlord, who wanted her property spruced up. The stars aligned, as the producers were looking for a restaurant themed around repurposed and refurbished items. It was a win-win for all three parties.
The chalkboard menu is a deliberate business strategy and supports MacDonell’s sustainability values. It doesn’t pigeonhole him but allows flexibility to serve the best food available. “Since day 1 we’ve had the Ploughman’s Platter ($22) [with] meats, cheeses, pickled veg and some kind of fish. But what that is at 6 o’clock and at 9:30 is a little different, because we’re just using all the stuff in the kitchen,” he says. “We’ve always used the same fish supplier, [but] how we do the fish changes week to week, depending on the seasonality of the items.” Other menu options have included Jim Giggi’s trout ($22), and a 14-ounce, 50-day dry-aged rib eye with corn ($40). Although the food is switched out regularly, the Barnyard Burger ($20) — topped with a duck egg, bacon and goat’s cheese is a mainstay.
Though the chefs have creative license, MacDonell calls for a well-rounded menu that ensures longevity by appealing to a wide cross-section of people. “You can’t be all things to everybody, right? But you have to have something for everyone,” he advises. “Having fish on the menu, vegetarian, a gluten-free option all the time is a way to not lose the vote. Also, you have to look in your room and see young people and old people, and people from this industry and from that industry,” he adds. “Things change so fast, and people are always looking for the new hot thing. If you rely on one demographic, and that demographic finds something new or better or more exciting, or they get bored, you’re done.” MacDonell gets a kick out of seeing three generations of families dining at his restaurants.
The staid Sunday night supper also gets turned on its head. All food and open alcohol are used up on Sunday nights to ensure nothing is thrown out or gets stale while the restaurant sits closed from Monday through Wednesday. “We do something called Fuck Mondays every Sunday night,” MacDonell says. “The goal is to blow everything out of the kitchen so there’s no waste.” As items run out, they’re crossed off the chalkboard, and alcohol is discounted to drain any lingering beer and wine bottles. Hourly specials add up to big savings for customers, with $6 pints from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., $8 wine from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., and 50 per cent off food from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. “It’s acceptable to people that you walk up and scratch out items that are sold out,” he adds. “Whereas if you have a menu in front of you, and it’s sold out, that can be frustrating. People get a kick out of it when you walk up and you scratch it out.”

MacDonell’s decisions to remain closed 60 per cent of the time and to shut down the restaurant a couple times per year are also intentional business choices. “Restaurants should think like the rest of the world. If you want to go see a movie, and it’s at 6:55 or at 9:15, that’s when you go,” he explains. “If I was to draw 18 people on a Monday night, probably not worth it. If I can get 11 of them to come between Thursday and Sunday … I’m opening the doors for seven people; definitely not worth it.”

But some revenue lost from closing the restaurant for holidays, vacations, pop-up events and road trips is recouped through Hunt Camp, a prix-fixe themed event featuring anything you would hunt or fish. Seats are pre-sold for an influx of cash, and a departure from the Ontario-centric menu allows staff to experiment with international wines and cheeses. The $150 meal usually features a fish, a bird, two meats and lots of vegetables. “It’s not a moneymaker. I don’t look at it that way. All of a sudden you get a week where you have no money coming in, then you get an influx of cash. So, if you sell a month of (weekly) Hunt Camp dinners, you’re getting $6,000 in the bank in a day,” says MacDonell, explaining that’s not enough to recoup all lost revenue. “It was borne out of my need to do something different and fun.”
The need to scratch a creative itch also drove MacDonell to open an offshoot restaurant in April 2013. Farmer’s Daughter is open Wednesday through Sunday. With an initial investment of $90,000, the MacDonell-designed concept of a sleek, sexy and urban restaurant with a seafood-oriented menu, hasn’t translated into the same success Farmhouse Tavern enjoys. Though the proprietor doesn’t disclose specific sales or profit margins, he notes his inaugural restaurant comes away with more than double the national profit margin average, which Toronto-based Restaurants Canada reports as 4.2 per cent, according to its “Foodservice Facts 2014.”
But change is coming to Farmer’s Daughter, which seats 38 inside and 42 outside. Wood accents, an easier-to-read chalkboard menu, a new kids’ menu and food that is lighter and less fancy will simplify the cuisine and warm up the stark decor. And, because Wade is now overseeing both outlets, there are efficiencies to be gained, such as with batch cooking and smoking larger quantities of food.
These modifications will hopefully bring a groundswell of customers who’ve already been enjoying the patio and revamped brunch dishes (nothing on the menu costs more than $17). “Community support is very important to the success of a restaurant, especially in a tightly knit neighbourhood such as The Junction,” notes Wade. “These changes are geared towards satisfying the needs of our local clientele but also to strengthen the Farmhouse brand,” Wade adds.

“[At Farmer’s Daughter] I created something totally different,” says MacDonell. But unfortunately, not enough customers flocked to the eatery. The restaurateur is confident the revamped Farmer’s Daughter will deliver the quality food and service his customers expect, garnering the level of support enjoyed at his flagship.

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