“We opened on April Fools’ Day”: How one Toronto restaurateur managed to start a new business in the middle of a pandemic
We opened Season Six on April Fool’s Day, which is very appropriate when you think about it. If you had told me I’d be opening my first restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, I would have assumed it was a joke. In some ways we’ve been lucky—the restaurant’s quick-service concept is well suited to the current situation. But opening a new business is a precarious endeavour at the best of times—and we are not in the best of times.
Owning my own restaurant has always been my dream. I’ve been working in the industry for a long time; I cooked at La Palette for 10 years. That’s where I met my wife, Lara—I was in the kitchen and she was a customer, dancing on the bar. We got married in 2017 and moved to Asia shortly after. Toronto has an amazing restaurant culture, but it’s not easy to save up money on a chef’s salary here. I earned more working in Asia, first as a corporate chef in Hong Kong and then in Dubai.
We moved back to Toronto last summer. By then I knew what kind of place I wanted to open, so I was keeping my eye out for a space in the city’s west end. In early February, we found the perfect spot for lease on Ossington. It was previously an eyelash bar, but it was exactly what we were looking for—a recently renovated blank canvas in a relatively small space. We signed our lease in early March. At that point, people were definitely talking about Covid-19, but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal—not in Toronto, anyway. We got our permit shortly after. It turns out we were one of the last new restaurants to get a permit before the Toronto Licensing Commission offices closed.
Funnily enough, the severity of the situation didn’t really hit me until the NBA cancelled its season. A few days after that, pretty much everything shut down—restaurants included. Then Lara was laid off from her job as a sommelier. That wasn’t great because we were counting on her income, but at least it meant there would be two of us working on the restaurant 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We ended up doing almost everything ourselves because we couldn’t have contractors in. We did all the electrical work in the washrooms—not that anyone is using them other than the two of us. I even built the counter myself, which is really complicated as it had to connect to heat and cooling sources, and was definitely not something I had planned on doing. I managed to get through it with a lot of advice from my dad, who happens to be quite handy, and a ton of YouTube tutorials. I’m pretty proud of the result—tiling on a curve is not an easy task, whether it’s your first time trying or not. We had ordered a large neon sign, but the company we ordered from is closed for the time being, so Lara made our sign. She also designed our website and menus. During all this, both of our laptops stolen were stolen. We had them on the counter to manage our deliveries when a customer came in—at least we thought he was a customer. I turned around to wash my hands and when I turned back, the computers were gone. Thankfully, our friend was able to lend us her old MacBook for the time being.
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We had planned to have a big launch party to celebrate and to spread the word. Now, I can only wait for people to pass by. When someone stops to look in the window, I’ll pop my head out and ask if they have any questions. We’ve gotten quite a few customers that way, but obviously nowhere near what we were expecting in terms of foot traffic. We paid a lot of money to lease a space in this neighbourhood and now it’s mostly a ghost town. Instead, we set up delivery through our website, and I’m doing the deliveries myself. Between that and going to the food terminal every morning—which is a big challenge, with all the new safety regulations—as well as doing all the prep and the cooking, I’m going pretty much non-stop. But it’s better than climbing the walls.
Season Six is all about farm-to-table food, made using rustic French cooking techniques and local, seasonal ingredients—but the set-up is essentially a fancier version of a Subway restaurant. Customers come in and choose what items they want from a hot table of sorts. Every day we have a protein—our signature is brisket—and several vegetable side dishes. I do all the cooking in the morning, so everything is ready to serve by the time we open. I can have someone’s order ready in less than a minute.
One of the biggest challenges has been figuring out how to stand out from the crowd now that every restaurant in Toronto is doing takeout and delivery. We thought we had identified something that the market was lacking in terms of good-quality, fast-casual food. And now here we are competing with places like Buca and Aloette. So far we’ve made enough money to cover our May rent, and because it’s just the two of us, I didn’t have to experience what it feels like to lay off staff. I realize that a lot of other restaurateurs weren’t as lucky. Who knows what our situation will be next month, though. I think it was Anthony Bourdain who said that if you want to open a restaurant, you have to be the kind of person who loves problem solving. With Covid-19, we’re definitely being put to that test.
—As told to Courtney Shea
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