I have known my friend Harrison for over seven years. He used to be the pest control guy at one of my former restaurants. His job was to exterminate up to- but no more than- 80% of pests and vermin in the restaurant. In other words, control the spread of pests just enough to not have the owner looking around for other suppliers. This wasn’t written into his contract, of course, but it was the unspoken ethos of his company. Exterminate all pests and he would have been out of a job. One Christmas, I invited him and his wife over for dinner at my home. It was a casual get-together with staff, but Harrison arrived bearing a bouquet of flowers, wearing his best suit, and his beautiful wife, Marilyn, in his arms. They were a bit over-dressed given the circumstances, but let loose very quickly. They appeared to enjoy themselves. The following week during one of his visits, Harrison told me that in his 20-odd years in the business, he had never been invited to a restaurateur’s home. Then he got on with his work. One month later, I had to “fire” Harrison. All the pests in the restaurant were- I’m not kidding- gone! He had made his job obsolete.
Developing strong relationships with suppliers has become one of the most important issues for me over the years. (Corporations call it “supply chain management”, as though it was about systems analysis and Excel worksheets, and not about people, their hardships and their all-too-brief triumphs.) The reason for it is simple: when business isn’t as good as you would like, you need to lean on your suppliers to carry some of the burden, often requesting an extension on terms, interest-free. Relationships such as these, like any of life’s important relationships, is based on trust and mutual respect. I tell my staff all the time: if you treat people like Harrison any different from a paying guest, you don’t know a damn thing about service. I know that if my staff deals with the pest exterminator the same human way as they do the customer who is going to leave them a tip, the world is not only a better place, but it is also the kind of place I feel proud about working in.
In recent years, I have turned to two suppliers who have really pulled their weight when it has come to relationship-building. One is a young man who owns an equipment and restaurant supply company, . Ryan Cho is talented, honest, and one of the hardest working people in the industry. He refurbishes used equipment, which he guarantees for life, as well as new ones which he sells to you for just slightly above his cost of HST. When I need him to, he will forgo payment until things pick up for me again. When I went to look at some equipment today, I almost had to convince him that his price was unforgivably low. This brand new Saturn 4-top burner was sold to me for $700. I’m not even sure it is legal for the manufacturer to sell it for that price. And I’m not allowed to tell you how much he was willing to take for this 4-year old Saeco espresso machine. And even though it was not my first choice, his price had me tempted to just buy it and sell it for a profit on Ebay (and share the profits with him) or keep it in the basement of the restaurant. I buy almost all equipments and restaurant supplies from him, recommend him to everyone, and he proves again and again the value that relationship-building can add to any business.
On the food side, Bloor Meat & Grocery, which has been around since Margaret Trudeau danced with the Rolling Stones at the El Macambo, is my go-to meat supplier. They also do some of the most delicious kimchi and ban-chan (side dishes) in the city. It’s run by the friendliest couple on this side of the Milky Way (west of Bathurst): Ja Young Choi and her husband, the Smiling Butcher of K-town, Kwang Tae Jun. You can always count on them for fatty meat and help during lean times. Again, building a relationship with this couple has paid great dividends. They use all local meat, but never brag about it like the faux locavores who stand on soap boxes with the intent of gouging at our consciences. No, they are quietly proud to leave a small carbon footprint and don’t much care if others choose not to. The very best pound-for-pound quality-to-price ratio in the city. And, when you are in a tight spot, they will look the other way when you want to pay.
I wondered a lot today about whether or not I could open this restaurant without the Ryans and Ja Youngs and Kwang Taes and, of course, the Harrisons of this world. The answer is that I could not. Plain and simple.