Jamie Kennedy sets the record straight on the Gardiner, the debts, and the Wine Bar sale

Jamie Kennedy sets the record straight on the Gardiner, the debts, and the Wine Bar sale

Trim the fat: Jamie Kennedy is scaling back his restaurant empire to suit the times (Photo by Davida Aronovitch) 

Last month, Jamie Kennedy called a press conference to talk about the transformation of his Gardiner restaurant from a fine dining destination to a café lunch spot—but that was only the beginning of the story. Kennedy is also facing crippling debt, bailout bids and the sale of his signature Wine Bar.

Kennedy says he will sell the Wine Bar, but only under the right circumstances. “I’m in no hurry,” he says, “This is not a fire sale.” In a Splendido-style hand off, Kennedy has offered the place to the next generation: senior staff Jamie Drummond, Laura Cleland, Aron Mohr and Scott Vivian. If the new JK cohort can scrape the funds together, the founder favours a clean break, though he’s conscious that his managers may want to keep up the association. “The Wine Bar was a beautiful thing and it should continue,” he says, “It occupies an important niche in the landscape of Toronto as a meeting point for local food.”

Not just for the money (Kennedy says the sale would cover only part of the company’s considerable debt), the Wine Bar transfer is part of a career shift that Kennedy has long contemplated. “Clearly the cash factor is one motivating thing, but it’s also my own journey. Philosophically, it was the right thing to happen,” says Kennedy of the move away from daily resto operations.

He wants to get back to an emphasis on artisanal, local food—which had been hindered by the commercial model of a large company. “I think one of the main strategic errors that I’ve made in this company in the last five years is the rapid expansion of the brand,” he explains after a thoughtful pause. “Much of the work of the past six months, including the restructuring of the Gardiner, has been to refocus our core values.”

Moving forward, the Gilead Café will be the centre of operations for the paired down outfit. The year-old restaurant has gained an all-important educational role as the site of Kennedy’s local dinner series. “Hank’s and Gilead are definitely a growing segment of our business,” he says. Kennedy is also working on his own bailout plan, by getting creative and uncovering new streams of revenue. He’s working with Rowe Farms, which provides animal bones for stock that he in turn sells at the company’s three stores. He also sells his charcuterie wholesale to The Healthy Butcher.

While plans are on hold until the economy brightens, Kennedy still intends to open a restaurant at his Prince Edward Country farm. When we asked if he would go the downtown fine dining route again, he said not to rule it out.