I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done

A Restaurant Ruined My Life

I was a foodie with a boring day job who figured he could run a restaurant. Then I encountered rats, endless red tape, crippling costs and debt-induced meltdowns, started popping sleeping pills, lost my house, and nearly sabotaged my marriage

By Robert Maxwell| Photograph by Dave Gillespie
| October 30, 2017

Seven years ago, I was an analyst for Telefilm Canada, earning a paycheque by sitting in a grey cube and shuffling box office stats. At the end of each day, I would rush home to my wife, two daughters and truest passion: making dinner. The sights and smells of my kitchen were balms to my soul.

Cooking would have remained a hobby if I hadn’t stumbled across old footage of Michelin chef Marco Pierre White preparing a stuffed pig’s trotter on YouTube. It was an audacious dish and maybe even a bit sinister. It looked a little like a stubby, sun-baked human hand on a platter. I loved how the deft skill of an unlikely genius and a few choice ingredients transformed a cheap cut of meat into a beautiful plate. The dish was transcendent to me, and in a rough kind of way, so was its creator. White smoked. White sneered. White swore. He was handsome. I could envision him swaggering around his Hampshire restaurant, the Yew Tree Inn, dropping exquisite plates of food in front of wealthy customers with all the bombast of a star footballer. As he got older and no longer cooked in the kitchen, he was known to hang about the bar and drink cider with customers, at times with a .22 rifle close by in case he had the sudden urge to go rabbit hunting. To me, Marco Pierre White was inspirational. I wanted to be him. And I wanted my own Yew Tree.

I soon joined the burgeoning ranks of the know-it-all gourmand. I owned fancy knives. I photographed my food. I had a subscription to Lucky Peach. I had a well-thumbed copy of Kitchen Confidential and a demi-glace-spattered copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. At work, I had trouble concentrating on spreadsheets and instead found myself scribbling menus on graph paper. I could picture a quaint dining room with wooden tables, scalloped plates and plaid napkins. I even came up with the perfect name: the Beech Tree, inspired by the Yew Tree. I naïvely figured I could do it as well as the restaurant lifers, the tattooed dude-chefs and the nut-busting empire builders. What I lacked in experience I could make up for in enthusiasm.

In 2011, I applied to operate a booth at the Toronto Underground Food Market, a short-lived festival, known as TUM, where home cooks could sell their culinary creations to the public. I served mini-panko-crusted codfish cakes with green pea pesto, gourmet pork belly sandwiches, and wild mushroom and black pudding hash. I slogged through each step of thrice-cooked English chips, my fingers cramping so severely from peeling 100 pounds of potatoes that I almost called 911. In the end, I fed 400 people, and they liked my food. Several local bloggers wrote about my dishes. It was an adrenalin rush like no other. I lost money, but I didn’t care. My dream was gnawing at my insides.

Eighty per cent of first-time restaurateurs fail. I knew this. Opening a restaurant was the least sensible, dumbest thing I could do. My wife, Dorothy, a daycare worker, was coasting toward the end of a maternity leave, and we had two kids to feed. I was in no position to take a risk. But if it succeeded, I could make more money than any office job had ever paid me. We could enjoy a better lifestyle and maybe buy a nicer house. Plus, I’d be doing what I loved.

I pitched the concept to Dorothy, explaining that I would be front of house, designing the menu, signing cheques and glad-handing customers. I told her about a guy I had met at TUM who had launched a successful restaurant and still made it home in time to tuck in the kids every night. I proposed that she work alongside me, hosting the lunch service while our girls were at school, and I would look after the dinner service. We could run errands in the mornings, maybe sneak away for breakfast at the competition and write it off as research. Eventually, she embraced my dream, too. Now I just needed to find the money.

Six months later, an opportunity arose. My position at Telefilm, a Crown corporation, was eliminated. I was offered a lateral step, but if I walked away, I would be able to cash out $60,000 from my $130,000 pension. I could already see the tufted banquettes, the Victorian wallpaper, the brass beer taps—and me, a rifle slung over my shoulder, a pint of cider in hand. As my last day approached, I brought up my idea over drinks with a friend named Jameson, who owned a popular west-end bar. After some talk about which craft beers I should offer, he turned serious. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into.” I smiled, drained my pint glass. “You pulled it off,” I said. “Why can’t I?”

To qualify for a liquor licence, I needed at least three months of experience in the industry. So I arranged to work in Jameson’s restaurant over the summer of 2013. My shifts consisted of a few leisurely hours chopping veg and prepping salad dressings. His chef, a hotshot Grand Electric alumnus, was probably not happy to have a home cook screwing around in his kitchen, but he tolerated my presence and was pretty good about the whole thing. My role was largely symbolic anyway, and after a few shifts stretched over a three-month period, I checked off that box.

The next step was to find a space. I scoured listings and realized that my $60,000 could barely cover the cost of a chip truck. I contacted the banks to apply for a business loan, but I didn’t qualify. I looked into a few angel investor groups, but it turned out that they didn’t “do” restaurants. I even considered Dragons’ Den. As it turns out, no one invests in first-time restaurateurs, no matter how mind-blowing they think their cooking is.

I turned to Jameson for advice, and he told me he was looking to buy a commercial building. He said that if I helped him find a suitable place, preferably with a liquor licence and an exhaust hood–equipped kitchen, he would buy it and lease it to me at a friendly rate. After a few weeks of searching, I found such a place—a two-storey building on Kingston Road just west of Victoria Park. I realized it was far from the downtown foodie scene, but I figured if diners made pilgrimages to Michael Stadtländer’s Eigensinn Farm all the way up in Singhampton, surely they could trek east for 25 minutes to enjoy the city’s finest thrice-cooked chips. Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive: the place was a 10-minute walk from my house and close to the girls’ school—key to keeping Dorothy on board.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
The future site of the Beech Tree was a grungy dive bar on a quiet stretch of Kingston Road near Victoria Park

The first floor of the building had been occupied by a dingy 30-seat dive bar that opened at weird hours and rarely had customers. The front façade was an ugly brown stucco, and the interior had grey walls covered in thrift shop prints and a flat-screen TV blasting 24-hour news. A cloud of fruit flies congregated around the beer taps. The stairs to the basement were so steep that you had to duck, clutch the railing and sidestep down. The ladies’ room was painted blood red, like the bathroom in The Shining. The whole place stank—a feral smell, like dirty hamster bedding or, more likely, rats. A swinging door led into the kitchen, and that’s where the strongest whiff of rat hit me, but it was buried under the stronger and, if it was even possible, more offensive smell of old grease. The kitchen ceiling was water damaged and sagged limply. The extraction hood loomed over the stove at an uneven angle—like it had been installed without the benefit of a level. The kitchen floor and appliances were hidden beneath a veneer of toffee-coloured grease. And yet all the required components of commercial cookery—stove, deep-fryer, fridge, flat-top—were accounted for. I wanted it so badly that I convinced myself it was the perfect fixer-upper.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
Over the course of two months, the author filled two industrial dumpsters with junk, including 16 litres of expired relish

Jameson agreed it had potential. Three weeks later, in August 2013, he bought the building and sold the business chattels to me for $50,000, which seemed like a fortune, but to start from scratch would have cost me much more. I put $5,000 down, and we arranged a five-year financing deal, which would free up my remaining cash. I then signed a lease for the space—the monthly payment looked like a lot of money, but, as I’ve since learned, it was roughly a third of what the folks on Ossington were paying.

Eventually, the keys were in my hand, and I brought Dorothy to take a look. I opened the door in a sort of ceremonious way and peered around the dark space. My confidence wilted. With the tables and chairs shoved to the side, it looked a lot worse than I remembered, as dusty and cheerless as an old tool shed. I kept my doubts to myself. We covered the windows with paper. I put a sign up that read, “Coming Soon: Wine, Ale and Fine Fare,” and locked up. Out in the fresh air, my confidence returned. Everything should be okay, I whispered to myself. I spent that evening at home sipping beer and looking up wallpaper ideas on the Internet, tipsy and delusional with optimism. The next day, I would start my life as a restaurateur.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
The fryer grease was as dark as motor oil and the stove so crusted over with food that professional cleaners refused to touch it

As much as I wanted to tear the place down to the studs, we didn’t have enough money to renovate, only to redecorate. I hired commercial cleaners, who told me that only the vent hood was worth cleaning; the rest was all junk. So I had everything else hauled away and leased new stuff. Before we installed the new gear, the cleaners spent a few hours hosing down the kitchen. Once they finished, they handed me a bill for $475 and informed me that they’d had to scrape an inch of bat guano off the top of the hood. I asked one of them if that was common. With a faraway look in his eyes, he said, “Dude, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I have seen some shit.”

Eventually, I found the rats. I followed their tracks in the muddy back alley to an abandoned laneway garage beyond my back door. I had no idea who owned the garage, but by the tiny claw prints radiating from a gnawed-out hole in the door, I knew there were dozens inside. Maybe hundreds. I hired a pest control company to build a strategic perimeter defence of rat traps around my restaurant. I couldn’t take any chances—one rodent loose in my dining room would put me out of business.

I knew that in order to serve booze, I needed my liquor service certification, so Dorothy and I took the online test and discovered with terror the liabilities we would face, including being responsible for any wilful destruction, plunder, pillaging and/or death caused by an over-served customer. Jameson had mentioned that I should incorporate my business, which would protect me personally from such liabilities, so I doled out $3,000 to hire a lawyer to oversee my incorporation. He later told me that I could have done it myself online for a couple hundred bucks.

The expenses piled up. The outdated fire suppression system needed replacing: $2,028. The beer system had no glycol machine to keep the lines cold, and it had been run incorrectly through an old and very dirty soda fountain: $1,966. Bringing in new appliances required that the gas lines be brought up to code: $2,200. Then there was the general construction. Among other things, I needed to repair some water-damaged walls, lay new subfloors, level out the hood, replace some shoddy wiring, install new bathroom fixtures, and rebuild the front façade and those dangerous stairs. I called in my cousin, a carpenter, who had some electrician-plumber friends, but even with the family discount, the total came close to $20,000. Dorothy and I painted walls, stained and varnished the bar shelves, reupholstered the chairs with a staple gun, and spray-painted IKEA pendant lights to great effect. There was the phone line to set up and the business licence for which I had to acquire a police background check. Each step cost money. We had started with $60,000; after six weeks, we were down to $3,000, and there was still so much to do.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
Replacing the keg lines, which lacked the glycol that keeps beer frosty, cost $2,000

I needed a chef who could turn my home recipes into restaurant-worthy standards. I placed an ad on Craigslist for head chef and received dozens of resumés, including one from a quasi-celebrity host-chef from the Food Network. I called eight for interviews. Five didn’t show up, including the Food Network guy. Jamie, a sous-chef from Opus, wasn’t so personable, speaking in a sort of emotionless, military proto-syntax, but I told him that I liked fish cakes, and he produced a special at Opus vaguely inspired by our conversation. Even though no one ordered it, I was flattered by the gesture. I hired him.

I also placed an ad for line cooks. Dozens of resumés came in, so I set up 11 interviews; only two showed up. I soon learned that this no-show tendency is the norm in the restaurant industry. One was a Chinese exchange student who spoke almost no English, the other a tattoo-covered trans woman who dressed like a vampire. Neither had much restaurant experience, but they seemed nice, so I hired them, too. I placed a third ad for front-of-house staff, and I hired a bartender who did have a lot of experience. She offered me plainspoken advice as I navigated my way through the point-of-sale system, reading chits, how to measure out wine and how to handle unruly drunks. I hired a floor server shortly thereafter to complete the team.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
Within three months, the author had ploughed through $60,000 and needed another $20,000 just to make it to opening day

Our soft launch was to be a private event: Dorothy’s birthday party on October 19. The night before, I found myself on a stepladder at 1:30 a.m. hanging wallpaper. By the following evening, a dumpy dive bar had been transformed into the Beech Tree. The room shimmered. Jamie cooked a beautiful prime rib dinner for the party, and our 30 guests had a great time.

I advertised the official opening for a few weeks later. I had left the liquor licence transfer to the last minute, but my lawyer assured me it would be okay. He told me to put up the old licence until the provincial registrar mailed the new one. Indeed, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission allows for this—called an Authorization to Contract Out—to help accelerate business transfers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the licence, and it turned out that the previous owners were in India and had left no forwarding information. I was facing a dry opening.

The stress was getting to me. I looked haggard, with a grizzly beard and dark circles under my eyes. I had lost 20 pounds. I rarely smiled. Since the beer kegs could be bought on credit, I drank lustily from them. I found myself pouring my first at 11 a.m. and continuing steadily throughout the day. I hated myself, I hated my new life, and I was having trouble sleeping. My stupid restaurant dream had turned into a nightmare. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I ran out of money.

Six weeks after I had signed the lease, my bank balance had withered to just $6 and I had yet to pay a single bill. I owed Jamie two weeks’ pay. We had no food at home, and our mortgage payment was due. Unsure of what to do, I sat alone at the bar of my unfinished, unopened restaurant and drank myself to oblivion.

The next day, in the haze of a monstrous hangover, a saviour arrived. My old friend and long-time colleague Debra called. She had always been supportive of my crazy dream and was checking in. That morning, feeling like a failure, I told her we were broke and had to shut down. She offered to invest $20,000 into the restaurant—the riskiest of ventures with a bumbling amateur at the helm. It was enough to keep us afloat until money started coming in. Without her help, the Beech Tree would never have opened. Then, 24 hours before launch, my lawyer got a reprint of the original liquor licence. I could serve alcohol.

On opening night, we had eight customers and a lot of kinks, the biggest of which was me: I tried clearing tables but kept dropping cutlery; I tried to help in the kitchen, but I wasn’t needed; and there was only room behind the bar for one person. So I stood around awkwardly, looking for some way to be useful. We tripped electrical breakers every time the coffee machine was turned on, plunging the dining room into darkness and silence as the stereo system cut out. The point-of-sale software malfunctioned, so we hand-wrote bills in duplicate. The next night, things got a bit better. And despite our hiccups, customers seemed to like us. We were certainly unlike anything in the area. Our bartender made cocktails that were almost voodoo in their deliciousness—mind-bending fusions of sweet, sour and boozy. Jamie was a gifted chef who produced plates well beyond my expectations. My shepherd’s pie became Lincolnshire hot pot with pickled vegetables. My humble codfish cakes became elegant croquettes of Ontario pickerel with a dill cream and baby beets. He created other dishes that blended seamlessly with mine.

The local newspaper, the Beach Metro, buzzed about the new place on Kingston Road, and soon we were busy enough that my participation, however clumsy, became crucial. I’d serve tables, cook on the line and sweat in the dish pit. We had abandoned the idea of a lunch service due to low demand, so Dorothy helped me run errands and look after general housekeeping during the day, but would leave by the mid-afternoon to pick up the kids. In the evenings, she spent much of her time at home, alone. My days were long—often 15 hours from start to close. For most of the week, the only time I saw my daughters was when I got home from work and checked in on them as they slept. And despite business picking up slightly, I was still broke. Between my pension money and cash that people had lent me, I was $80,000 deep, with no profit in sight: for every dollar I made, I was spending three. I didn’t take an official paycheque, and when I worked the floor, I didn’t take a dime in tips. I figured as an owner, I wasn’t supposed to. At the end of our second month, I couldn’t make payroll. I was short by about $2,000. Out of desperation, Dorothy invited her mother to the restaurant for dinner, where we sheepishly explained our problem. A sensible woman, my mother-in-law was always convinced that my restaurant was a stupid idea. We were handily making her case. Nevertheless, she agreed to lend us a few thousand dollars to cover payroll. But her loan was eaten up so quickly that by the next payday, I was short again.

I was honest with the staff. I assumed they would walk, but they didn’t. The servers were happy with tips and an IOU. I wrote the cooks cheques and asked that they wait a week to cash them, hoping that a few busy nights’ worth of sales would change things. I had missed my own mortgage payment—something I had never done. Jameson was easygoing about the rent in the early days, but the suppliers and utilities needed to be paid if I was to stay open. I looked into my remaining pension of $70,000 and learned that I could unlock some of it due to “financial hardship.” I just needed a lawyer’s notarization. So, I cashed out the annual max of $25,000, which, after tax penalties, came to $18,000. I caught up on payroll and made my mortgage payment. I wrote Jameson his first rent cheque. But within six weeks, I had burned through all $18,000. What I didn’t realize was that I was charging too little—we were producing exquisite, labour-intensive meals and selling them at Swiss Chalet prices. I clearly didn’t have a head for business.

The restaurant was taking its toll on me. I drank too much. I slunk around like a ghost, my chest hurting, my heart rattling weirdly in my rib cage like a stone in a coffee tin. I was grinding my molars throughout the day. At night, my anxiety mutated into something worse. Overstimulated and soaked in sweat, I would thrash feverishly in bed. My thoughts would get caught in a vicious feedback loop, the restaurant playlist repeating over and over in my head, garbled conversations with customers churning endlessly. Every time I felt I was drifting off to sleep, I’d have a gasp response, like I was tipping backward on a chair. Then I’d roll over, cover my ears and wait for the next volley of shells. For a while, I drank enough to drown out the noise, but eventually, alcohol was not enough to fend off the demons. I needed more. Dorothy had had a temporary bout with anxiety a year earlier, and she still had a half-full prescription bottle of sedatives in the medicine cabinet. In the thick of one of these night terrors, after a difficult, understaffed service, I knocked back four or five pills. They sloshed around in my gut with gallons of booze—probably a bad idea, but I didn’t care. I was skeptical that something so small could fix me. And then, at what I thought was the very edge of a descent into complete hysteria, I felt the drug’s first tender caress. It was a mere suggestion, like a velvet curtain slowly drawing across a window. My jackhammer heart slowed to a normal rate. Sleep soon settled over me and gently delivered me to that most wondrous of states: nothingness.

The alcohol and pill combo didn’t prove fatal, so I began taking them a couple of times a week to help me sleep. But I knew the prescription would eventually run out. I thought of asking Dorothy to get more from our doctor but then felt sick with myself. Had I not asked enough of my poor wife? Now I wanted her to supply me with narcotics? She knew that I had taken a pill here and there to help me sleep, but she didn’t know that I was taking up to five at a time and combining them with blinding amounts of alcohol.

The Beech Tree’s first Valentine’s Day was a success. Thirty-six hours later, the compressor for the walk-in fridge died. I lost $1,000 in spoiled food, and the repair was another $2,747. This caused me to fall behind on the rent, which was already a month late. Friend or no friend, Jameson had his own bills to pay, and he couldn’t ignore my delinquency forever. He soon started sending me emails inquiring about the rent. At home, we were living like paupers, putting $4 of gas in the car at a time, mining for loose change among the couch cushions and living off Kraft Dinner. Then the final insult: with a cart full of groceries and two cranky kids in tow, Dorothy’s debit card was declined at the local Loblaws. She was angry for days and cold to me at home, where we bickered about money, my drinking and my absence. “We never see you,” she said to me. “You were supposed to be home to tuck in the kids! And we’re broke—I don’t even have enough money to buy toothpaste!” She was right, and I knew it. Unless I came up with a solution, I was going to lose my business and maybe my wife.

I had one last option. It was 2014, and the Toronto real estate market was hot. We could sell our small Upper Beach semi, which we had bought in 2006, use some of the money for the Beech Tree and bank the rest for a down payment on a new house when business picked up. My kids cried when I told them we had to leave our home. Dorothy cried too, but she wanted the bill collectors off our backs as much as I did. That March, we sold our house for $490,000, of which roughly $100,000 was equity. We moved into a tiny two-bedroom rental a couple of streets over. I used the money to pay down $40,000 in debt, set up a $20,000 fund to cover the HST remittance that would be due the following year and put $12,000 away for a new home purchase. I installed dedicated air conditioning in the Beech Tree kitchen and put in new floors. I gave staff raises and caught up on overdue rent. Dorothy could buy groceries again. I cautiously allowed myself to relax a little. Then we got the review.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
By early 2014, the author, seen here behind the bar, was running a successful restaurant, but he’d had to sell his house to keep the business afloat

I had to read it three times to believe it—the Beech Tree had earned four stars from the Toronto Star, one of only a handful of such reviews in the last decade. It was stunning—we had tied the Black Hoof and Farmhouse Tavern; we had beaten Bar Isabel and Café Boulud! The phone started ringing and didn’t stop. Soon, there was a lineup snaking out our door every night. Pride surged through my veins like a low-grade opiate. We were pulling in between $2,500 and $3,500 a night—enough to sustain the restaurant and have some profit at the end of the day. I was even toying with the idea of expansion. With our financial situation stabilized and the restaurant hopping every night, Dorothy saw the potential for things to work after all—we were a team again. It was brilliant.

With a successful summer behind us, I decided to close the Beech Tree for the last week of August to give everyone a vacation, and to spend time with my neglected wife and kids. In those seven days that we were closed, supplier cheques continued to clear and salaried staff continued to get paid, but nothing came in to replace that money. It was a novice mistake. I didn’t have the savings to warrant closing. Cutting off cash flow devastated our account within a week. To make matters worse, a $4,000 utility bill was waiting for me when I got back, our air conditioner the culprit. How was I to know that the dining room AC unit that came with the building pumped thousands of litres of municipal water through its pipes? We reopened after Labour Day, one of the slowest weeks for restaurants. The modest profit we had accumulated after a busy summer evaporated. Out of options, I cashed out the entire new home down-payment fund—officially putting us out of the market for a house. The quick cash infusion covered the worst of the bills, but we weren’t clear yet. It would take six weeks to get back to even. During that time, we operated at a hefty loss and regularly dipped into the $20,000 HST fund over the course of the next couple of months. Eventually that, too, was gone. By that point, I had dumped $170,000 into the restaurant, and to keep our head above water, Dorothy had to turn to her mother again for more money, another blow to my already bruised pride.

I placed the last of my money down on a marketing event—a party in November 2014 celebrating our one-year anniversary in hopes of bringing back the summer crowds. During the party, the tenant above the Beech Tree flooded her apartment, and water cascaded from our ceiling onto a table as the diners were placing their order. We put a bucket on their table, moved them to the bar and mopped up. Eventually, the deluge slowed to a steady drip, but with the dinner service largely ruined, I entered full panic mode. I fled downstairs, locked myself in the walk-in fridge and poured six cans of cider down my throat. I had run out of pills a couple of months earlier, so booze was my last refuge. We had hired a band to play. I eventually emerged from my hiding place, drunk and cocksure, grabbed a guitar and attempted to play along. It went as well as could be predicted: badly. Then I gave a rambling, incoherent speech to the guests, including Mary-Margaret McMahon, our city councillor. I staggered home and passed out.

Soon, our cash flow dried up completely. The crowds drawn by the Star review had thinned to a trickle. Even though we were a solid restaurant, our quiet neighbourhood was a tough area to do business in. We weren’t part of the cool chef club; we were the high school losers. I bounced a couple of supplier cheques for the first time, and I received the first notice in the mail that the taxman was looking for $23,000 in HST remittance deductions from the previous year, money that had long ago been spent. Then one morning, after talking briefly to my lawyer, I learned the worst news of all: my incorporation could not protect me from Revenue Canada. I would be personally liable for all the money owed. I sat alone in the Beech Tree that morning and contemplated my mess. I had nowhere to turn, no one to borrow from, no assets to sell and nowhere to hide. I came to the realization with numb acceptance—I had wagered everything and lost.

I couldn’t easily liquidate the business because it had been financed through Jameson. And if I shut down, I’d throw half a dozen people out of work. So I brought in a guy from the neighbourhood named Helder who had tons of restaurant experience and had pinch-hit in our kitchen a couple of times. We decided that he would run the place, draw a paycheque and begin the process of buying into the business, which would free me up to get a day job and start catching up on my debts. But I was so far behind on my rent that Jameson ultimately arranged for the restaurant chattels and licence to be taken over piecemeal by Helder’s corporation in a sort of amicable exchange. Any other landlord would have simply locked me out. This arrangement would allow the restaurant to stay open, the name to live on and the staff to be paid. With the final paperwork complete, Helder was no longer my partner, but the sole proprietor of the restaurant that I built. For that, I wish him the best—honestly, I do. He is doing a better job than I did. The staff don’t appear to miss my amateur dithering.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
Maxwell at the Beech Tree in September

Today, It pains me to look at that damask wallpaper. Every corner of the Beech Tree—every floor tile, shelf, chair and church pew is my blood and sweat. I lost a part of myself in that room, a part of me that I will never get back. I continue to have a sort of ceremonial role with the place, but that’s about it. The extent of my ownership is the cookbook library on the shelves and my late uncle’s brass storm lantern atop the bar.

The nightmare is far from over. I still have an outstanding HST situation, and I face the prospect of personal bankruptcy. I lost my house at the worst time in Toronto—real estate prices took a maddening uptick, leaving me completely priced out of my own neighbourhood. I will likely never own a home again. I borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from friends and family that I must somehow pay back. I promised Dorothy riches and instead gave her poverty, but she stuck with me through everything. She took a job at the local nursery school, and I’ve been working at the CBC as an analyst. Since getting back to normal working hours, my drinking has dropped to a glass of wine with dinner. I don’t pop pills, and I am sleeping soundly at night. My chest doesn’t hurt anymore. We have moved a few times and have settled into a nicer rental with three bedrooms. We can barely afford the place, but I wanted my daughters to have their own rooms—like they did before I sold our house. I may have to moonlight as a bartender to make sure the rent gets paid, but my girls are worth it. I regained my love of cooking and started a YouTube channel—a low-cost, low-risk outlet for my passion that Dorothy can live with. I am going to try and make good on my debts, and I will spend a lifetime making it up to my wife. If I knew back in 2013 what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.

I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I've ever done
Today, the Beech Tree has a loyal local following and turns a modest profit, but Maxwell is no longer an owner

I have a newfound respect and admiration for those in the restaurant business. It is the toughest of industries—hard work, excruciating hours and meagre pay—and I don’t think most diners have an inkling of how much sacrifice goes into a decent plate of food. No wonder Marco Pierre White always seemed so angry. In the end, I got my Yew Tree—but it was just too slippery to hold onto. I’m sharing my story as a cautionary tale to other amateurs who have big ideas: don’t even think about it. Stick to your dinner parties. You’ll be better off.


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