“I’d wake up every morning in a cold sweat”: Why restaurateur Ed Ho left the industry to go back to school
In 1994 Ed Ho joined Dynamic Mutual Funds, where he worked his way into the investment counselling division, managing funds while enjoying the finer things in life. Until 2004, when he decided to make a change. Many of us know Ho from his forward-thinking Globe Bistro and Earth restaurants, but when he closed his last restaurant just three months before the pandemic hit, a new career was already taking shape.
“Dynamic Mutual Funds was a great place to work. I enjoyed the responsibility and mental challenges, but I must admit the entire industry was full of alpha males, which is not my nature. When everyone else was going out for drinks after work, I was taking food and wine courses, including one for a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) diploma. Without truly recognizing it at the time, this was the direction I wanted to go in.
I had a lot of friends in the hospitality industry, and a bunch of them helped me realize I could start my own restaurant from the ground up. My wife and I bought a building on the Danforth in May 2006. Buying that building was probably the smartest thing we could have done. By owning the building, we captured much of the value of what was invested in renovations. And everyone knows that investing in Toronto real estate has never been a losing proposition.
At the time, chef Mark Cutrara was married to a friend of a friend, and through that connection, we became friends. We discussed what kind of restaurant I could open, and he became a trusted advisor and eventually my opening chef. He was ahead of the curve in terms of using local and sustainable ingredients and helped me realize his vision of what the restaurant should be. We opened in November 2006, launching as a fine-dining restaurant serving local, seasonal farm-to-table food. Mark was the opening chef for the first couple of months, then Ben Heaton took over.
It was beyond-my-dreams successful for the first two years. We were often doing 300-plus covers a night. It wasn’t without challenges, though. Back in 2007, there was no food distribution system for local products. We had farmers coming by all day—the elk guy, the mushroom guy. It was great dealing directly with farmers, but it was also time consuming and hard to manage because there were so many suppliers—upwards of 50, including winemakers. Distribution literally involved a drop-off at our back door; sometimes products came and sometimes they didn’t. It’s not like a Sysco truck delivered everything twice a week on a pallet. It was chaotic and joyful at the same time.
In 2008 the financial crisis hit, and everything fell apart. Christmas parties were called off and the momentum quickly went out of our sails. When things didn’t get much better the following year, we needed to make some difficult decisions. It was at that point we transitioned to being a more casual restaurant. It was still finer dining, but not of the white tablecloth kind. Without the benefit of being in the downtown core, we had to appeal to regulars from the neighbourhood—we couldn’t do $40 entrées anymore. That’s when things actually started to right themselves.
We opened Earth Rosedale in 2009. What Globe eventually became—a neighbourhood bistro— was what Earth Rosedale was from the outset. Two years later, we opened Earth Bloor West. It was a monstrous space, but the rent was inexpensive, and I thought we could use it as a commissary kitchen for our other two restaurants. When I signed the lease, there was a demolition clause on the property, but I wasn’t concerned. The owner had been building the footprint for demolition since the late 80’s, but the city always fought it. But in 2013 the landlord finally exercised the demolition clause, so we were forced to close. [Note: It wasn’t until eight years later, just this month, they finally demolished the building.] We were at Earth Rosedale for the entirety of our five-year lease, then the landlord wanted to double our rent, so we walked away. It closed in 2014.
When I had the three restaurants, I’d wake up every morning in a cold sweat, wondering what the tragedy of the day would be. Who’s not going to show up? Who’s getting arrested? What’s going to break? We had over 100 staff and I was wearing a lot of hats: head of HR, business developer, ingredient procurer, supply chain manager, addiction counsellor and father figure. When I was down to running just one restaurant, things got easier. We were dishing out seasonal plates like rare elk loin seared with mushroom and corn fricassee and carrot purée, and Canadian fish, like Fogo Island cod. The menu changed all the time—except for the sticky toffee pudding, it was a fan favourite.
In 2014, we decided to sell the building to a friend of a friend, and we simply leased the restaurant space back from them. They were great landlords. When the lease came up in November 2019, my team and I decided we didn’t want to sign a new one. Some of us were getting older and others wanted to explore new challenges, so we started winding things down. New Year’s Eve 2019 was our last service—three months later, Covid hit. I feel fortunate and a little guilty, seeing all the trauma. It’s heartbreaking. I couldn’t have foreseen this in my lifetime.
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After I closed my last restaurant, my wife, Daniella—who has gone through several big career changes herself—gave me some great advice. She said my next move wasn’t obvious, so I should take my time figuring it out. I wasn’t fearing for my financial wherewithal, thankfully, so that helped. Like everyone else at the start of the pandemic, I took some online courses, baked and cooked a lot, and gardened. I built a sound studio in my basement—I’m a musician but I also do some acting and voiceover work—so I use the room a lot.
It was during the pandemic that I met one of Daniella’s friends, who happens to be an emotional intelligence coach. You don’t often get the chance to start over in life. But this was one of those moments when I could make a fresh start. What was my dream job? My new life coach instructed me to put together a dream board, so I did. My board was full of sticky notes that included things like my skills, what I take pleasure in and other things that are meaningful to me. I also realized after being an entrepreneur for so long, that it would be difficult to work for someone else. So how do I put all of that together?
I’m doing my Masters in Energy Policy and Climate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, online for now. I could go to campus next semester full-time if I wanted to but I don’t think my wife would appreciate it, so I’ll just visit now and then. The degree is $42,000 USD and it should take me a year and a half to complete. In retrospect I don’t know why it was so hard to realize that this is what I was meant to do. At 50, I’ve found a profound purpose in life. I’m fascinated and obsessed by every task of the program that’s thrown my way. It’s so aligned with everything I believe in; I feel very fortunate. I could see myself working in sustainable finance, or on some sort of development or technology that will make a difference. Just yesterday, I was having a discussion with a friend whose company does wind and solar installations in Latin America. There are so many fascinating career possibilities.
Working in the hospitality industry was an immense strain on my life, so it’s unlikely I’ll go back into it—though I never say never. These days I’m happily being proactive instead of reactive. I’m planning my next move instead of worrying about what needs to be fixed or what’s going to go wrong next. Of course, I do miss some aspects of the industry. I miss my team, the guests and the suppliers–especially some of the wine guys. But some of the other pain-in-the-ass parts of it? Those are hard to miss.
Have you recently left the hospitality industry for something entirely different? Let us know at [email protected]