Customer Spotlight: Starving Artist
Starving Artist quickly became Toronto’s favourite waffle house and it’s easy to see why. With 4 booming locations under their belt and several more opening in the near future, we took a timeout for some waffle bacon and a chat with Jesse, General Manager of all locations, for some of the secrets to their success.
We’re not like most restaurants, we really build things from the ground up ourselves.
May I ask...Why waffles?
Ha! Great question! We came about at a time a few years ago when everything seemed to have a niche - either you were a burrito spot, or this, or that. I think social media really drove the food industry to rapidly narrow in focus like that, where everything had to have ‘a thing’. Brian, the owner, saw an opportunity for waffles, had a few unique ideas, and decided to offer them to the city. He’s always experimenting with different dishes, and waffles really are a blank canvas which you can put almost anything on. Even as it stands now we have a whole bunch of new dishes & features launching in the summer because waffles are such a wide canvas to do whatever you’d like.
We’re not like most restaurants, we really build things from the ground up ourselves. Like I’ve worked in brunch for I guess 15 years now? And this place is nothing like any other restaurant i've ever worked. We’re very product specific, I think I brought that up with [my sales rep] when we first came on. We have quite a number of specifications for products that make the restaurant function, and we can’t really bend around them.
Do you attribute being so specific with your ingredients to part of your success as well? Part of what made Starving Artist what it is?
Absolutely, I imagine it’s had to be! If you take a look at our kitchens, our kitchens are very small; we function out of small spaces. Our first location in Lansdowne was tiny, the kitchen was maybe 2½ feet wide with 2 burners and 2 fridges, so having good tasting high quality products that we can sort of rely on has always been incredibly important to us.
We must’ve changed our products over a million times by now, but we’re always improving. We’ll never bring in a lower quality juice or a lower quality potato or a lower quality whatever, but we are always on the hunt for a better product.
Do you find you guys thrive in a very functional but small environment?
Well we are able to function in any sort of environment, but we definitely build around a certain size restaurant. St. Clair is our largest location and it’s a completely different beast than anything else we’ve ever built. We do have a certain ‘standard’ size kitchen and restaurant which is mostly build around our waffle makers - they’re what make us great.
Ah, so are the waffle makers one of the first things to be installed in a new location?
Sort of... We’ve done this enough now that we have a system and just kinda know what works, but like I said we’re not 6 burners like most restaurants, we’re just banging out our flat top. Our waffle presses make 4 waffles and run for 3 minutes each, so that has huge implications for our service. That’s the point where we start to maximize our efficiency: how many seats you can serve over a certain amount of time - that’s really what runs our business.
Speaking of franchising and opening new locations, how do you deal with paying rent in the expensive downtown core? With minimum order amounts starting at $600, restaurateurs tell us they just don’t have the storage space to purchase this amount product in addition to paying high rent premiums.
“Don’t pay downtown rent,” he smiles and chuckles before I’m midway through the question. St. Clair location isn’t their first rodeo and Jesse gets this question quite often.
We’ve never competed downtown. We’re on College & Ossington and could go further south if we wanted to, but between the rent and amount of competition it’s just not worth it to us.
So that was a purposeful decision?
Absolutely a conscious decision. It’s just less headache up here.
We’ve built up a really good name for ourselves, and brunch is one of those unique sort of things where people will drive to get breakfast. If you have a parking lot, good food and good service, people will come to you.
Plus it kind of becomes a ‘neighbourhood thing’ at that point doesn’t it? You'll end up with a Starving Artist established in each Toronto neighbourhood, which is identical to the others, yet still eclectic & unique.
Yeah exactly, it’s totally a neighbourhood thing. We’ve always felt a lot of support from the neighbourhoods we set up in, and try to give a bit of that back as well. We don’t really follow trends we just do our own thing, and it’s worked well for us so far.
You mentioned you’ve been in the brunch industry for about 15 years now; can you tell us a bit more about your history and where it all started for you?
Just like anybody else i’ve done a little bit of everything. I did a short stint at Milestones, worked at a place in Oakville called Stoney’s who actually just expanded into Toronto, they have a place in Etobicoke now. Steve, the head chef there is unbelievable and they were fantastic, I really learned a lot from them. After that I kind of bounced around a little bit before getting into Starving Artist.
In terms of why I chose brunch, I think for some people dinner is sort of their ‘bread and butter’, they like that lifestyle. I’ve always been an early morning person so the idea of getting up at the crack of dawn, coming in and being done work around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon is pretty appealing to me. I don’t really care about weekends i’d rather do my grocery shopping on Monday or Tuesday when no one’s around, so it’s just a lifestyle choice.
That sounds like a pretty good lifestyle for a restaurant owner, eh?
Yeah it’s fantastic, and it’s a great sales pitch for us for staffing! Chef staffing has become incredibly difficult with more and more restauranteurs starting families and the rise in minimum wage. We actually share tips amongst everyone here which you don’t see very often.
Employees will share tips with chefs?
Yeah like we give a little bit extra to our servers, but we make sure our chefs get a proper cut and we all pitch in and pool tips together, making it more of a team aspect rather than a “FOH” “BOH” divide. Everyone sort of pools together, you know you’re making as much as next person so everybody hustles, and everybody’s happy - it works well for us.
How has ChefHero been working for you?
I find It’s much easier to source a new product or supplier. I actually find myself now sort of going through a few of the available suppliers just to see what you have.
I’ve got a fairly busy role, with three restaurants that i’m constantly bouncing around plus a new franchise coming up, plus everything else, so sometimes I’ll back burner some of this type of stuff. When I do go to do it ChefHero makes it easy because your interface is so user-friendly; I feel like I could put my mother on it. It’s not too far off from internet online shopping, it’s essentially the same piece.
For example I couldn't use the grapefruit juice that my rep had added to my order guide, but it was so easy for me to go through and find a replacement product. A lot easier than it would have been with ‘The Other Guys’.
Why do you think that is?
Well you guys have a lot of really good visuals and a good description beside it, whereas some of the words ‘The Other Guys’ use can sometimes be confusing. For example when I order with ‘The Other Guys’ and I’m looking for paper towel, it will come up as ‘kraft multi-roll, 8in’. But to someone who doesn’t do ordering all the time they're not going to know that an ‘8in multi-roll’ is in fact a brown paper towel. I find anything through you guys is more like “this is the picture of it” “this is what it is” “this is the price” and it’s just that easy! That aspect is key when sourcing our main items like bacon - that’s a big business for us especially now with our expansion. We’re looking to expand to a new location this summer, we’ve just signed the lease on it.
Do you mind if I ask where?
Ehhhhhhh you gotta wait, its ok ;)
With two more additional franchises on the way, Starving Artist hopes to open 3 new locations in the next year and a half. Book a table at one of their 4 locations at http://www.starvingartistbar.com/
Look out for our Ultimate Guide to Managing a Restaurant, where we’ll outline more of our conversation with Starving Artist, on how to navigate the perilous Toronto real estate market.