How top Toronto chefs keep customers coming back

How top Toronto chefs keep customers coming back

Some of the biggest names in food share what makes their restaurants successful

The restaurant industry is exhilarating but not for the faint of heart—more than half of restaurants in Canada are currently operating at a loss. And running a successful one is about so much more than just food. 

The Culinary Creators Project, presented by American Express and Square, invited the restaurant community to Steam Whistle Brewing on March 25 to network, discuss industry challenges and learn from one another while sampling chef-crafted bites and drinks.

A large group of people mingling and sampling food in an open-concept space at Steam Whistle Brewery.

“It’s about coming together to tell restaurant owners about our commitment to their industry,” said Kerri-Ann Santaguida, vice-president and general manager of merchant services Canada, American Express. “At American Express, we have a long legacy of supporting small businesses. By partnering with Square, we’re able to continue to bring impactful marketing opportunities to restaurant owners.”

The event’s panel included some of the biggest names in the local food scene: Patrick Kriss, chef and founder of Alo Food Group; Craig Harding, executive chef and TV personality; Nicki Laborie, owner of Reyna Hospitality Group and founder of View the Vibe; and Derek Wasser, chief operating officer of The Food Dudes. They shared how to navigate challenges that restaurants face today. Here’s their advice. 

Create an impactful brand

A thriving restaurant delivers something that can’t be matched by its competitors, whether that’s price, high-quality service, atmosphere or unique food and drinks. With her Reyna restaurants, said Laborie, she was “looking to create something ultra-feminine because at the time everything was very masculine.” She’s always kept the branding strong and consistent, from the decor, logo and business cards to the brand’s Instagram and TikTok feeds, and this attention to detail has attracted a lot of guests. “I’m very stringent about our marketing and social media,” Laborie said. “If it’s not right, it’s taken down.”

Nicki Laborie, owner of Reyna Hospitality Group and founder of View the VIBE, speaks on the panel in a white-collar shirt and aqua-blue blazer.

Offering the right food and atmosphere, as well as giving people the ability to pay how they want, is a great way to establish long-term customers. Insights from American Express and Square can help restaurant owners better understand what their customers prefer so they can better serve them. “Square really is this all-in-one technology platform that gives restaurant owners time back to spend on other things,” said Karisa Marra, head of sales for Square Canada.

Develop a content strategy

Engaging content marketing is how businesses create a connection with their customers when they’re not in the restaurant. The stronger this connection, the more likely the business is to attract guests. “You have to be really smart about crafting your brand and content,” said Wasser. “You need a really authentic story, but it should be tight and concise so people don’t get confused about what it is.”

An interview between two women being recorded by a man on his phone in front of the Culinary Creators Project Toronto backdrop.

American Express and Square can help restaurant owners create content strategies where their customers interact most, so that they can expand their customer base. “By understanding restaurants’ goals and aspirations, we are able to use our marketing assets to bring them to life in a very real way,” said Santaguida. 

Be prepared to adapt

Uncontrollable things will happen. During the pandemic, restaurants struggled to maintain consistent revenue and fill vacant positions. Harding said his restaurants streamlined services, focusing on busy periods. Some places took on more events that offered great margins, while others grappled with restructuring their teams. But Laborie said her restaurants have actually suffered more in the last six months due to inflation and other challenges.

Moderator Karisa Marra and chef panelists Patrick Kriss, Craig Harding, Nicki Laborie and Derek Wasser talk on stage.

Square keeps what you can control in check with innovative inventory management, scheduling, invoicing and payment tools. Plus, data insights can provide restaurant owners with real-time info on the health of their restaurants so they can see, for example, how well the special is selling.

Demand for contactless payment methods has increased, too. With Square, merchants can seamlessly accept any type of card or online payment so they never miss a sale. “It’s about helping businesses grow by always keeping the door open to any customer,” said Marra. 

Know when to grow

Changing up the menu and branching out with new services can positively impact a restaurant’s bottom line, but it’s important to consider what will actually sell. Rising food and labour costs are putting a big dent in budgets, so a close eye on spending is critical. “We took for granted that theoretical costs used to just work,” said Wasser. “Now, we need to be hypervigilant.”

Patrick Kriss, chef and founder of Alo Food Group, speaks to the audience wearing navy blue sweater.

A solid, trustworthy team is pivotal to successful scaling, too. “Being able to delegate and feel good about not being there for every decision can be a challenge, but you can move forward and drive what’s next,” said Kriss. And always use your intuition. “Trust yourself and act quickly,” added Wasser. Mistakes will happen, but sometimes it’s the only way to learn. “If you’re not making wrong decisions, you’re not making any decisions,” said Kriss. Both Harding and Laborie reflected that at one point they thought it was feasible for their restaurants to be open seven days a week—which did not work well. “Focus on a few things and do them really well,” said Harding.