Top Chef Canada’s Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

Top Chef Canada's Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

When it comes to the restaurant industry, Chef Mark McEwan has done it all. He’s the chef and restaurateur behind Toronto’s North 44, Bymark, ONE, and Fabricca, and also the founder of a retail grocery and catering business. He’s written cookbooks, started his own cookware line, and become a leader in Canadian food TV with shows like The Heat and Top Chef Canada, where he serves as head judge.

Recently, we talked to Mark to learn how he juggles so many different businesses and concepts, the biggest challenges he’s facing today, what excites him about the Canadian food scene, and his advice for restaurateurs and aspiring TV chefs alike. Read on!

Tell me a little bit about making the jump from chef to restaurateur when you opened North 44.

It’s a huge jump, because you are now ultimately responsible for front and back and all parts in between. Now you’re into the purchasing of every single item that the restaurant requires, plus managing the staff, front and back. You do wear a different hat and take on a different role, there’s no doubt about it. But some people understand that and some, surprisingly, don’t.

What were some of the biggest challenges for you along the way?

I think managing the bank. Now you’re cooking, you’re cleaning, you’re prepping, you’re hiring, you’re firing, you’re going to the bank meetings — you’re doing everything. You have to generate statements, you have to track all your numbers, everything down to your credit card deductions, to your employee deductions. All those things become relevant to you as an owner.

You have to do what you’re good at, and you have to get other people to do what you’re not good at. Being able to manage that process is what it is to be an owner.

Did you learn anything about hiring, and what kind of people you seek out to work with you?

Oh, there’s no doubt. That curve never stops. The employment side of the business today is one of the most challenging aspects of it. People are attracted to the industry — that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good at it or will survive it. There’s a misunderstanding with a lot of people of what the restaurant business really is, and they don’t get it until they’re in it.

Like, to be a cook in a busy restaurant is a very tough job. To run the kitchen in a very busy restaurant is an even tougher job. People watch the celebrity chef channel and they think that it’s more TV than not. Well, it’s a bit of a rude awakening for most of them.

Tell me about the grocery and retail aspect of your business and how it’s affected your brand. Has it allowed you to reach another customer?

Undoubtedly, it allows me to continue my relationship with my existing clients at a different level, and to meet new clients. You connect with people and you do it thoughtfully and then build your brand. And your brand becomes not just about breakfast, lunch, and dinner; now it’s about take-home product, it’s about catering, it’s about floral. It just broadens your base. For me, it worked very, very well.

And my store supplies my restaurant with a lot of product, so I actually became my own supplier.

Top Chef Canada's Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

So that allows you to purchase at scale, and do other things from a business standpoint?

Yeah, I’m paying myself better, which is nice, versus paying somebody else! [Laughs.]

What about moving into television? How has that allowed you to build your brand?

I started television about 10 years ago with a show called The Heat. There really wasn’t a show out there that depicted the real score behind the scenes for the chefs — in restaurants, whether you’re opening a grocery store, or doing catering. So we went sort of balls to the wall with live cameras, live events, and we filmed all these events real time and compiled a show. We did three years on the show. It was very successful.

From there, the Top Chef brand came to Canada, and the powers that be at Shaw thought that I was the right fit to come in and be the principal judge. Subsequently we had four seasons of that, which was very good for us.

What do you look for when you’re evaluating other chefs, like on Top Chef Canada?

Number one, that their food tastes good. [Laughs.] First and foremost, it’s all about the food, right?

Then you look for organization and understanding of product, and how they work and move. Are they mature? Do they waste time, do they not waste time? Do they manage others well? At the end of the day, on Top Chef Canada, it is about the meal, and them understanding product and how to deliver it and sort of wow the customer. So I tried not to let other things cloud my judgment too much. I wanted the best chef to win.

What is your best advice for other chefs or restaurateurs who are interested in television?

Try not to focus too much on it. [Laughs.]

Why is that?

TV chases you. You don’t chase TV. There’s a funny unwritten rule: The more you want something, probably the less likely it is to happen. You need to do something that makes you stand out and be exceptional in your category.

And TV wants you to be interesting, so you could look at that as a potential exercise to think about. And after that, short of pitching your own show, if you’re top in category you’re probably going to get something offered to you. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t try to go out and find television, but television always somehow has a way of coming back to me in some form.

Top Chef Canada's Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

Is there anything you wish you had known when you were getting in?

About television? No real surprises for me. We took a really honest approach to it. It wasn’t about me being crazy on television and creating this weird persona, it was just all about doing the right thing. Deliver the right product, pick the right chef to win, and all that stuff.

I tend to be a little shy by nature, so I’m not the person who stands on the podium and waves their hands around. I do it quietly through business and creating opportunity, and that’s more exciting to me than being the star performer.

What’s unique about the Canadian food scene right now? What inspires you about it?

It’s highly energized, and it’s highly competitive. It’s probably at the best it’s ever been. The big challenge the industry has right now is finding cooks and servers and managers to keep up with it.

I’ve never seen so many restaurants built, ever, in a period of time than have been built in the last four years. Everybody wants to own a restaurant. You have real estate development fueling that, and then television’s fueling that. It makes the climate competitive, and you have to work very hard.

Are there any particularly exciting trends?

I would say the lack of trends is an exciting trend. Trends are all sort of silly to me. They jump on the bandwagon with a product just because they need something to talk about, then it gets talked to death, and no one wants to talk about it the next year.

I think we’ve matured that the whole idea of a trend is really less important than good operations and what’s actually going on. Chefs are really more about technique and the application of technique and really, really being good at it than they are at gimmicks. I don’t believe gimmicks fly at all in the marketplace. Everybody’s way too distracted for that to matter.

You run so many different concepts and even businesses, with retail, television, cookbooks — what are some of the rewards and challenges of juggling the different models and operations?

The rewards are that you succeed, and that people enjoy what you do, first and foremost. The challenges are that you sacrifice a great deal of your life and energy to manage all the issues of the people you employ.

We have 500 employees, so there’s always a discussion. Everybody’s in need of conversation and a pat on the back. The employee side, especially in this country, gets tougher and tougher. They’re talking about minimum wage again, and now we have Ontario pension coming in, which is on the backs of small businesses.

Top Chef Canada's Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

That’s top of mind for people in California and New York as well. What are some of the ways you deal with it as a business owner?

Number one, it just creates inflation because these are situations that you can’t just absorb. So you try to be absolutely as efficient as you can. Again, there’s no gimmick to deal with it; you have a baseline in your business, and you have to work with it. The unfortunate reality is that in Canada, you can’t even fire anybody. If you fire them, all they have to do is call up labor relations or the human rights board, and all of the sudden you’re in court.

I had a young gentleman who worked for me for 10 days. He begged us for a job; we gave him a job. He was a very average performer, and then all of the sudden he had an eye infection. He missed this day, he missed the next day, he was supposed to be in the third day, and the third day he doesn’t show up. My chef just takes him off the schedule, thinking this kid is just disappearing. This young kid goes to the human rights tribunal and says that we fired him when he was sick, which in Canada you can’t do. He worked for me for 10 days. They came back and assessed me at $6,800 penalty to him, for pain and suffering. [Laughs.] Can you believe that? That was more money than this kid has ever made in his life. This is how the government injects itself. As a private businessperson, you have all of these hats to wear, and some days they get a little heavy.

So how do you deal with underperformers?

The unfortunate reality is that you have to document everything. What has been thrust upon you as an owner is, whether than have a congenial relationship with a new employee, you have to create a file. If I have to bring you in after two weeks and talk to you, I have to document everything, have them sign it, have you sign it, date it, put it in the file. Which sort of creates this aggressive, looking over the shoulder relationship right out of the gate.

If you let someone go after three or four months on the job, they say, where’s your documentation? Did you write them up? Did you give them three warnings? I find this to be really unfortunate.

You have to perfectly define their job, tell them where they’re going, what they’re going to be paid. And it really has nothing to do with their performance, because if that doesn’t occur then you have another whole series of documentations to prove that you gave them a proper opportunity. Otherwise you’ll go to court and you will lose, and you’ll have to pay your legals and everything else. And you, as an owner, cannot go after this person for a wrongful accusation or for renumeration of costs. And their lawyer is free, provided by the government. So the playing field in Canada is incredibly aggressive. You have to play by the book all the time. I think this is why a lot of U.S. operators, when they come up here, their eyes are wide open. And that’s why many of them don’t come up.

This really rewards marginal talent in the marketplace. It rewards laziness. It rewards an inability to work with people, because they make their problems other people’s problems. Having said that, I have I would say 97% excellent employees, but you find them the hard way. My belief is that out of every 10 employees, the average is 1.8.

1.8 are the good ones or the bad ones?

The good ones represent 1.8 — that’s not even two full digits. Those are what you call “keepers.”

When I work, it’s not about me; it’s about why I’m working and who I’m working for. That I exceed expectation, that I hit it out of the park. These are the things that have always driven me. I’ve never gone out and thought, well what are you doing for me? What am I getting? And I never will. But many people, that’s how they start their career.

I believe, at the end of the day, you’ll have very little reward when you go to the marketplace with that. You see a lot of that today. It’s sort of the “me” generation. I’m sounding really old here. [Laughs.]

What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to establishing a brand, as a chef and restaurateur?

You just have consistency. You have to be wrong for a while and you have to deliver on what you say you’re going to deliver on, right? Then all the sudden you start to add layers to your company. I never knew I was branding myself and then suddenly I woke up and everybody was telling me, wow, you have the greatest brand. I said, really? I guess I did it slowly, the old-fashioned way, where we succeeded. And then all of the sudden you have this multi-level company and you’re doing media, and everybody’s so brand aware that it’s like, “Oh my God, you’ve got a brand!”

If you’re going to go at it, to create a brand, it’s a slow process. You have to really dedicate yourself to it. I did it over the course of a career. Because they view chefs differently, because of television and what have you, maybe in the last five, six years it really accelerated. But that’s sort of the way the market looks at things now.

You’re as good as your last meal, right? Or your last deal. And that’s what you need to focus on.

Top Chef Canada's Mark McEwan on Staffing Challenges, Brand Building, and Setting Yourself Up for Financial Success

What is your best advice for someone who wants to open their own restaurant?

I think you need to do many, many, many financial plans about your scenario. As much as you can imagine owning a place, you better imagine what it is to own a place. How many seats? What’s your location? What does it cost you? How many cooks? How many servers? How much money do you have? What’s my average check going to be? If I generate an average check that I think is in the ballpark, how many clients do I need for lunch and dinner to generate enough dollars every day for this place to make sense? What do those numbers look like?

Many people never do that. What you have to do is be really honest with yourself and don’t base your numbers on you hitting a home run. Think about a base hit or a two-base hit. Learn where do we stand and how are we going to manage. Many people underestimate the cost of building a restaurant because they’ve never done it before. The length of time it takes, and then the number of moving parts, right down to who answers my phone. What do my mats on the floor cost me every month? What will my electricity bill be, my gas bill, my insurance? All these things.

Go out and get a P&L statement from a proper restaurant, and you fill in all the blanks. And then get an accountant to look at it — someone who knows the restaurant business, to poke holes in it for you. You come at the thing from the opposite direction. What you may do is say, wow, I can’t make any money selling sandwiches at $15 and having a place like this. I’ll never make any money. That may be the exercise. You may not want to hear that now, but you’ll be glad you did it.