“If we had known it was going to be 18 months, we would have turtled up immediately”: A Q&A with Doug Penfold on closing Chabrol
Chef Doug Penfold was just about to open his dream restaurant when the pandemic hit. Eighteen months, endless stressors and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, and the team behind the new-and-improved Chabrol (Peer to Peer Hospitality Group) made the difficult decision to shutter at the end of summer. “It got to the point where it felt like we were throwing good money after bad money without the ability to see a way forward,” says Penfold. Here, he tells Toronto Life about being an optimist in the face of disaster, how vaccine passports weren’t the answer and why even high-end chefs need a side hustle.
Back in March 2020, you were about to open up the new-and-improved Chabrol. At what point did you realize Covid had a different plan for you?
The timing could not have been worse. We were literally supposed to have our launch the week that Covid hit. We spent about four months building while still running the original restaurant. We gave all of our staff a week off before the big opening, so the last shift was Friday, March 13—by Monday, the province was heading into lockdown. We gave everyone their last cheque and said, okay, we’ll call you in a couple of weeks. Obviously we had no idea.
I don’t want to pour salt in the wound, but is it fair to say the new Chabrol was your dream restaurant?
It was pretty close. I love all of my restaurants, like you love all your children, but Chabrol was special. It was the type of cooking I trained in; French cuisine, fine dining. It’s funny because before you open a restaurant you can think it’s great, but you never really know what other people are going to think. Pretty early on, the original Chabrol took—for lack of a better way to describe it—cult status. It was like a secret spot because you couldn’t really see it from the street; the kind of place you told your friends about. And there was an intimacy to the space that made it kind of unique. We had a good run, but eventually we knew we needed more space, just from a business perspective.
What made the new space on Cumberland the perfect fit?
In this business you are always looking for spaces, keeping an ear to the ground on what’s out there. We came across the Cumberland location before it was even listed. I believe it was previously a Caplansky’s. It was the same Yorkville location but with way more space at a better price, so a pretty perfect scenario. We brought in a lot of the things from the original restaurant—the chandeliers, some of the art—to recreate a similar ambiance. Upstairs was a darker and more subdued formal dining room, and then downstairs a brighter bistro and a bar with an aquamarine motif, a decorative bart counter and a jellyfish tank.
Were jellyfish on the menu?!
No, no. You can eat jellyfish—I gather it’s very good for you, but no, not in French cooking. We just thought it was fun and a nice design feature. We actually had our staff raising shrimp to feed the jellyfish, which was a lot of fun for them.
So then you did get a chance to open the new location?
We opened for about three months over summer 2020, though not in the way we had envisioned. It was lovely just to get the wheels turning again, to get a good feel for what the space could be like, but it was only two days a week and there was still a lot of trepidation—people were still hesitant to dine out. And then we were clipped very short by the November lockdown. Like everyone we were scurrying, trying to stay afloat. We did a takeout menu once a week, a little catering, some charity events to keep our name and brand out there. Over this past summer we did an outdoor pop-up bringing back Cava, our Spanish tapas restaurant that closed in 2019. It was something, but not enough.
Was there a particular moment when you knew the dream was dead?
Every week, after the first couple of months, we would have these conversations like, ‘Is it time to call it?’ I tend to be an optimist and as a restaurateur and operator you never want to say die, but when you’re paying out every month and bringing in barely anything, it doesn’t add up. Yes there were subsidies, but they didn’t cover everything and with a couple of locations, it all adds up pretty quickly. I don’t want to get into the specifics, but a lot of restaurants lost about $200,000. We certainly did. It got to the point where it felt like we were throwing good money after bad money without the ability to see a way forward without a significant loss to our investors. We knew we didn’t want that, so we decided to start sniffing around. We were approached by a buyer in June and the sale went through in August.
Can you say who the buyer is?
No, but I think when they start to do work it will be pretty evident. They’re well known and they’re great guys. It was a heartbreaking decision to sell, but for us it was definitely the right one. At least this way we can pay off our suppliers and still have a little capital left over to launch our future projects.
You talk about not being able to see a path forward for Chabrol, but couldn’t vaccine passports have provided that path?
Maybe, if it meant that people could come back in the numbers that they used to but I don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not for a while with restrictions around seat numbers. I think with Chabrol in particular, it’s a certain type of dining experience and maybe it’s not exactly right for the time. Our feeling is that Tanto, our casual Argentinian steakhouse on Queen West is the best physical location to weather what’s happening right now, so we’re focused on preparing that space for the fall, building up a little capita. Eventually we will look at space that could work for Cava.
So, R.I.P. Chabrol?
Chabrol isn’t necessarily gone for good. I just think it’s very tied to the Yorkville neighbourhood, and maybe not what is going to be in demand right now with the three-course meals, champagne, caviar, foie gras. Cava is a little more accessible, a better price point and lots of options, which is what people are really going to want.
If you had a time machine, is there anything you would have done differently?
I think if we had known it was going to be 18 months, we would have turtled up immediately instead of burning up our capital by being optimistic and hoping that we would get more support in terms of government which never really came. I think this has been handled really poorly. It’s a big sector—bigger than many people realize—and I think we’ve been pretty much hung out to dry. Even with the vaccine passports, it would have been nice if the responsibility for that hadn’t been downloaded onto restaurants. It takes a lot of time to check the passport, then check ID, deal with difficult issues and customers. That’s just another staffing expense for us at a time when restaurants are already dealing with labour shortages.
So many people have spent the pandemic working on their home cheffing skills. What were you up to when the rest of the world was perfecting their sourdough technique?
I was working construction outside of the city for a while, building houses out near Peterborough and then commuting into the city a few times a week. It was a side job to help keep the cash flow going and I learned a new skill set. Contractors are booked for years now, so if you can do some of the work yourself, it goes a long way.