Sometimes it takes a crisis to fuel creativity. That’s a maxim not lost on Ryan Campbell, executive chef of Il Covo in Toronto. Like many, he was forced to learn to adapt and roll with the punches. “Our sales dropped about 80 per cent in March of 2020. We were forced to lay off our last four members of the team but the day we were allowed to serve takeout food only, we were ready to go and interested on how things would pan out.”
While Il Covo is an upscale eatery, Campbell quickly learned to pivot to take out. He also created an entirely new and unique concept, which allowed him to bring back a couple of key members, including chef de cuisine Samantha Lamanna and head bartender Luca Cesaretti.”
The new concept he breathed life into was a mortadella sandwich shop called Morts and Radio Cocktails, a virtual bottle shop. “The biggest challenges were not creating and rolling out new concepts but figuring out how to keep them busy,” says Campbell. “Keeping people excited while there is so much competition out there can be really tricky.”
Necessity fuelled the decision to start anew. “Offering food from only Il Covo wasn’t enough. We needed to create new revenue streams without spending more than a couple hundred dollars — sort of hilarious but fun in a way. Morts started with just some fun ideas, an $80 griddle, a $9 spatula and a hunk of killer mortadella. It’s not the single saving grace to our business but it’s a big contributor.” Sandwiches range from $7.99 to $13.99.
On the beverage side, a surplus of alcohol pushed the team to introduce Radio Cocktails. “We had a million bottles of quality alcohol in house and Luca made the best of them. We chipped away at delivery platforms, branding, creating websites and next thing you know we’re operating rather smoothly.”
As we now move into the reality of a two-dose summer, Campbell says “Takeout is a new thing that will most likely stick. Being more active near the front of the restaurant to attract attention is a big one for us as well, such as bartending, offering ice cream, things like that.”
On a side venture, Campbell and his girlfriend Sara Streep also launched another new concept that is going gangbusters – Gertie’s, a company that sells luscious and decadent peanut butter pies based on his mother’s (Gertie) recipe. “I never forgot about eating these pies, always loved them but nobody ever makes them.”
Last summer, while making dinner with his girlfriend/business partner, she decided to test her hand at replicating the peanut-butter pie recipe. “I put it on my IG story and I’ve never seen such a response from any food I’ve ever shared online,” laughs Campbell. It was then the duo realized they should act on the idea. “I started refining the pie until we felt it was great and ready to serve.” He started selling to friends and family “but people from all over were catching wind and his phone “just blew up. Emails, DMs and texts would not stop coming in. Strangers would text me and say they received my number from so and so and ask how they could get their hands on our peanut butter pie.”
The partners have since teamed up with one of the city’s dairy suppliers to take care of its GTA distribution while the pies are also available wholesale throughout eastern Ontario and Montreal.
While Campbell doesn’t have a crystal ball as to what the future holds, he believes restaurants that have managed to survive will have “a better chance to thrive in the near future due, sadly, to so many restaurants permanently closing.
“I’m feeling very optimistic for Il Covo. We have a promising summer ahead of us and look forward to cooking and serving our simple comfort food.” The restaurant used to be a little fancy, but “we are taking a break from that and looking forward to serving the type of food you want to eat every day in a very relaxed and casual atmosphere. It’s party time now.”
Written by Rosanna Caira