Last week, an old friend of mine called me from out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in seeing a restaurant space up for sale in downtown Toronto. I politely declined his offer, told him that I was too busy trying to finish a long-delayed book- and, oh, that I had hoped to never see a restaurant from a proprietor’s point-of-view ever again. Besides, I didn’t have the kind of money to throw away at yet another failed venture. He explained the circumstances around how the restaurant space came into his hands. A well-known chicken wing franchise had walked away from a deal with the landlord because it’s final (and most important) condition had not been met: to procure a patio liquor licence. At the municipal hearing the day before, a well-organized ad hoc residential committee had probably come out to describe their version of summertime hell: college students staggering out of the bar after last call and puking on well-manicured lawns; delusionary crooners who mistook the stage for their shower stalls on karaoke Tuesdays; the general mayhem that comes when a respectable and self-respecting residential neighbourhood meets a rowdy bar. The hearing, as it should, went the way of the residents.
By this stage, the landlord had already invested a handsome sum of money toward leasehold improvements. My friend knew the landlord well and he had promised to give him (my friend) great terms on the purchase of the chattel and lease if he could find someone to partner with him on a restaurant project, someone who had restaurant experience. ”We can do it with minimal investment,” my friend said. I had heard all this before, of course, and it never failed to send a chill up my spine. He attached some photos of the restaurant space and my curiosity was roused.
The space is on the corner of a busy mixed residential and commercial street. Great exposure along both streets, with huge windows.
Clearly, it was a bar-centered concept that the wings franchise was going for. The moment you get off your invisible horse, as PSY, the creator of Gangnam Style, might have, and swagger through the doors, you want nothing more than to saddle up and put your mouth under a draft tap.
The kitchen was brand new, as was everything else. Three deep-fryers- that’s a lot of wings and a lot of potential cardiac arrests.
There was a problem. The back room was hidden from view. It imparted a feeling of apartness from the main room and also had a separate entrance to it. It was as though somebody had the not-so-bright idea to knock down only part of the wall, got tired, and left the job. This was going to be a challenge. How do we make those sitting back here feel like they are part of the whole restaurant experience? Or do you create something unique in this space, separate from the main room?
There were many more issues, but with the right ideas and a good team around me, I thought I could make this work. Wishful thinking? There was no time for that. I had to meet the landlord. I was inspired by his love of Korean culture and food, his work ethic, and general outlook on family and the larger community. We made a deal. Five year lease option. Free rent in the month of November for renovations, which I felt was fair given the circumstances- the restaurant was a turnkey, ready to open the next day.
But we would open the restaurant on December 1st.
“Do you have a concept in mind?” My friend said. He had never worked in a restaurant before, so for my friend having “a concept in mind” was like asking somebody for change to buy a cup of coffee- no big deal. “Not yet,” I responded. I only had vague notions that it would be some marriage of Korean and Japanese, something contemporary, delicious and value-driven with casual warm service in mind. Stuff I knew.
“Let’s go to Korea,” I said. “I want to see what’s new there.” We purchased round trip tickets from November 1st to November 7th to Seoul, South Korea.
And I decided to document the next 30 days to opening, every day, in this blog…