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Eric Joyal & John Sinopoli (Ep31)

October 8, 2021

For this episode, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the cofounders of Ascari – a Toronto based hospitality group that has evolved in the past decade+ from an experimental Izakaya into a portfolio of French/Italian restaurants, bar plus new retail concept.

Ascari cofounders Erik Joyal and John Sinopoli have been an innovative tour de force through the pandemic, managing not only to stay alive despite uncertainty but expanding their customer offering by focusing on what their team excels at.

*Recorded on October 8, 2021

Podcast Transcript

Qasim Virjee 0:28
Welcome back to the start. Well podcast. For this episode, we’re sitting down in studio at start well on King Street West with Eric oil, and Johnson opoli, from the scary Hospitality Group. So, okay, so you guys start, you know, your partnership, you meet each other. The chef joins the front man, you found a Japanese is a guy in a city that was still finding its culinary, you know, interests. You were early or ahead of the game. And then 50 staff, suddenly, you’re a whirlwind of operations nightmare with that restaurant. And when it ends very quickly, you find something that’s a bit of a kind of a slower pace that’s more manageable. And, and you start having fun, maybe a little bit more. It’s

Erik Joyal 1:19
always fun. It was always it was always fun. There were there’s different degrees of stress. And there’s different degrees of challenges, right, I think managing table 17 Still had its huge challenges, even though it was a smaller team, they were just different.

John Sinopoli 1:34
I don’t know. Yeah, I agree. I think that wouldn’t mean is that guy was open for three years and had a lot of success. In many ways. I think that couple of mistakes we made were maybe the size, the neighborhood things that first operators if and the experience we provided in like year one was very different from the experience we were providing by the end, but but that time, I think the whole might have been a bit deep and the traction wasn’t wasn’t there. But with table 17 The motivation was do what you know, right? And we knew the food experience you’re gonna provide there, like it was a very European continental cuisine that was rooted in Italian and French. And an experience that Eric and I are both very familiar and comfortable with, not that we weren’t familiar with is a chi experience. We were because you lived in Japan, I did live in Japan. And Eric was very familiar with a similar concept in England when he lived there. And I think that the challenge was, how could we communicate that experience, where people are going to believe us that this is this was what people said, it was a lot easier because of our backgrounds and our roots. And so like, people

Qasim Virjee 2:45
walk into an izakaya. And it’s a white guy saying, oh, and they’re like, What the hell is going on? We

John Sinopoli 2:53
didn’t have course, you know, very strong Japanese team in the back of house and the front and the front as well, like we had in to be honest, at the time, too, there was a fraction of the Japanese immigrants in Toronto than there are now like, now, there’s a whole community of young Japanese people who own restaurants and do do that, and bring their culture here at the time wasn’t the case. So we, I remember came to us like the Yeah, like, there was like one little five page Japanese newspaper in Toronto, you know, and, and they had us featured a couple times, and that helped us get some great employees. But table 17 was a change in pace in a few ways. Like we went to a neighborhood Yeah, we’re making personal relationships, we relationships and connections with our clientele. Those were lasting relationships, very different from the St. Lawrence Market neighborhood experience, which was more touristy, more like, you know, daytime people and then they would leave and go home and there was a few people who lived around there, but not like now. So going to a neighborhood was was a different approach to connecting with your clientele. 100%

Qasim Virjee 3:54
Yeah, lots of lessons, I’m sure as restaurant tours coming from being the neighborhood restaurant, and having regulars actually live around the corner and think of using you know, something that they rely on in the neighborhood to

Erik Joyal 4:08
Well, I mean, as a as a restaurant tours, those those lessons are every day that continued to this day, right? We’re still learning lessons every single day.

Qasim Virjee 4:16
Yeah, it’s it’s it’s such a hydra business. This it’s so dynamic. Yeah. And it’s okay, so table 17 lasted or it’s still around.

Erik Joyal 4:25
No, we had we table 17 lasted till 2000 went from Oh, eight to 2016. Okay. Yeah, so it was just about a year just under eight

Qasim Virjee 4:37
years. Yeah. And then was that the point where Askari was born? No, that had been born

Erik Joyal 4:41
a couple of years prior 1011 2000 End of 2010 I believe.

John Sinopoli 4:47
Yeah. So we opened No, we opened December 2011. Three years blur three years after? Yeah, three years after we open table 17 a local businessman landlord we knew who also open own restaurants, said, Hey, I got this space, come take a look. And then we kind of kind of immediately knew what we wanted to do. It was, it was a great complement to what we were doing at Taylor 17. And it was still a small neighborhood restaurant, which was great. We knew we were good at that now.

Qasim Virjee 5:21
And then, from there, a scary let’s let’s bring it up to the last couple of years, but like up till, like 2019. Where, where did you guys see, I guess, you know, 2018 19? Where did you see the future for a scary being? Was it a brand that was going to extrapolate into becoming a quote unquote, you know, Hospitality Group, as now, that was

Erik Joyal 5:43
always the intention. I think I mean, things evolve, and you have different ideas about how you want to, you know, forge ahead in the future. But we always thought that the Askari brand was really, really strong, right? It represented a lot of things that that are close to both of us. And so yeah, we always had the feeling that Askari Enoteca on Queen Street East was not going to be just that there was going to be more to it, right. And so it evolved but it but it’s, it’s taken different turns along the way, like we opened a scurry on Queen Street. Then we opened a bar called high low again, like right across the street from table 17. So we had these three little places in the East End. And then we got into we got involved in the development of the bravi Hotel. Oh, I didn’t even know that. Yeah, we were we we developed the, you know, the FMB program for that hotel for and we worked on that project for a long time, probably two and a half years before it opened.

Qasim Virjee 6:47
So now tell me what you know about the history of the Broadview hotel.

John Sinopoli 6:53
You know, a lot we, we were there from like the demolition through the entire build and in a lot of the history because, you know, as the operators, you know, we were deep into the story of the project right as the FMB opera portion of the operators there. So yeah, there’s a lot of histories I forget the

Erik Joyal 7:10
guy I forget the guy that the name of the gentleman that actually built. What is the bravi hotel today, but it’s been a few years but done him I think was Yeah, soap company. Yeah, it was a so he was a soap manufacturer in the east and

Qasim Virjee 7:23
my great grandfather was a soap man. Oh, yeah.

Erik Joyal 7:27
So the East End was this really sort of, you know, the turn of the last century or I guess, like the late 1800s. Queen and Broadview area was a really sort of cool hip and happening place. There were lots of hotels that were vaudeville theaters, it was all it was a lot of action around there. That’s where a lot of like, you know, salesmen traveling salesman would go and that’s where that that would be the sort of the hub before they would cross the Don Valley and go into Toronto to sell their wares and do whatever it was the Brooklyn of Toronto, kind of Yeah, very much so and, and this guy done him I forgot his first name. But anyway, he built this place. And he quickly shortly thereafter actually moved out to to Alberta. And he was the first person in Canada to drill an oil wells in Alberta. Wow. Yeah. It’s pretty cool. That is very, it’s been a long time since I’ve gone through that, that all the history there. So some of I forgotten but the Broadview hotel and that particular neighborhood of Bravo and Queen has got a really, really rich history.

John Sinopoli 8:34
And it was also home to the original cycling club in Toronto, like, like cycling racers in the winter on like the top floor. They had like an oval track that they practice that hotel. Yeah, that wasn’t a hotel at the time. It didn’t become a hotel until the early 1900s. Like 1910 or something. It was like an office building or the Lincoln the link. They called it the Lincoln hotel that was the name of the first one they convert it to rooms. But previous to that was like off like a bank on the main floor offices. And the top floor was the Royal Canadian Cycling Club, which is an offshoot of the famous Royal Canadian curling club which exists across the street. But the Royal Canadian curling clubs started on the frozen Don River, just like have like half a kilometer away right and then so that area was like very rich in vertiv Yeah, very active. So lately and across the street on the south side of Queen there would have been sun light field, which is a great huge baseball stadium. Where I believe like some of the greats like Babe Ruth played in yoga. I mean, yeah, and like there’s a lot of cool sporting cultural history within a kilometer of that building.

Erik Joyal 9:41
Right south on Broadview. I know we’re getting a little bit off topic but south of

Qasim Virjee 9:45
any topic is a topic of cool is the top. So

Erik Joyal 9:49
if you go south of Queen Street on Broadview on the west side of that street used to be the the the wall The field and baseball fields weren’t diamond shaped back then they were sort of more like rectangular shaped. Oh, and there’s photographs of people that would come down and watch the baseball games down there. And they would line the the fence of the field with their horse and buggies. And everybody would be standing and watching the game on top of like the horse carriages. Wow. Yeah. Like it’s the amount of history about well, Toronto in general, but particularly in the east end of Toronto, all the changes that have happened over the last like 120 150 years, right? It is fascinating. And I hope it doesn’t get lost because it’s, it’s, it’s really

John Sinopoli 10:37
fun. Of course, the more recent history before the bravi hotel was jellies, of course, many people of our generation will remember that.

Qasim Virjee 10:43
Yeah. I never venue. I never went there. Yeah, now I’ll say it on camera on microphone. At CD strip club. Yeah.

John Sinopoli 10:52
And it was like room for rent by the week upstairs. So the demo was very interesting. And there was many rooms with 1520 layers of wallpaper on the wall. And as the designers peeled back the wallpaper, they found some cool patterns that they incorporated into the design of the actual hotel, which was was really fun. And but really, the building was stripped to the bricks, not even the I wouldn’t like the framing, all the wood was all gone. They report everything below, they dug out the basement, the whole thing was refitted and the structure was created a new because they added of course the rooftop bar and right it was an incredible construction project to be a part of and to, to see and help, you know design the back house portions and the dining rooms and to try to you know, bring a vibrancy back to that cultural hub. And I think that project really did a lot for the the neighborhood and establishing an important cultural location. It’s wrong.

Qasim Virjee 11:57
It’s so interesting because like the, to be part of that recycling of history, in a sense, where you know, maybe, obviously, because these are young cities here in Canada, Toronto and East Toronto being not that old, but in its foundation years, you know, having so much of this colorful kind of life in the neighborhood. And then it fallen dilapidation. And now the pinnacle property being or one of the pinnacle Hospitality properties in the neighborhood being this hotel that was a strip club at its, I don’t know lowest highest it depends on the night you’re having

John Sinopoli 12:33
it was a cabaret from it. Like I mean, 3040 years we’re talking it was the longest running thing in that building was jealous, like for its lifetime, very successful without a doubt, without a doubt. But I remember like I had a veg supplier vegetable supplier who used to live much further east and we have to take the streetcar when he was a kid in the 60s to go through Riverside. And he says I used to duck my head below the windows of the streetcar when we went through that neighborhood because it was so rough, right? And there was people throwing things and there was fights and brawls would like pour out of the bars on the street. Yeah. And like you would never see that happen today in any neighborhood, no matter how rough. And he’s like, Oh no, it was rough, like beer bottles being like tossed at people on the street and stuff. He’s like, Hey, you ducked down and like make yourself on scene going through that even in street art. So you cross the bridge right back into like the downtown Toronto.

Qasim Virjee 13:25
This is always the aesthetic impression I’ve had of the neighborhood. It’s still to this day, there’s a little edginess to it. That kind of I don’t know, it’s interesting,

John Sinopoli 13:35
so edgy. look calm, soft curves. I call them today. Yeah,

Erik Joyal 13:39
I know, you guys have seen that. But even I mean, when we open table 17 In 2008 there was still some, there was still some, some solid grit there for

John Sinopoli 13:48
sure. There were needles to be cleaned up in the backyard for sure. Right. Yeah, it

Erik Joyal 13:51
was definitely you know, it was there was there was some action happening there. Even when we were renovating you know, we’d have guys come down that had nicked you know, five gallon cans of primer paint, and they’d be trying to sell their flogging trying to sell us the primer paint well, while the shopkeeper from three blocks away was hustling down the street trying to get his primer back. So there was definitely some interesting, interesting times, but that neighborhoods changed a lot. I mean, it’s it’s a phenomenal neighborhood. It’s got tons of young families. There’s lots of great, you know, stores and restaurants. And you know, you walk around there on a on a Saturday afternoon and it’s got a really cool sort of village like, right vibe. And what’s

John Sinopoli 14:33
cool is there’s a lot of characters that still live there that connect the past to the present. Like you’ve got George on the barbershop. He’s been there for minimum 45 years. And he plays chess in his window. I mean, he’s a steeple. And you like Ronnie, Ronnie shovel

Erik Joyal 14:48
does. He’s got to be about 90 now but he still buzzes around. Yeah, Kurt a million miles an hour. Yeah. And until about, I don’t know, five, six years ago, he was still like, you know, shoveling the front of our Wow, one of our businesses for 15 bucks a shot. Yeah, it was pretty cool. He’s been there. He’s been living in. He’s, he’s literally I think he’s very close. He was born in that house. And he was born in that. Yeah, it was undergrad and he’s in the 90s.

John Sinopoli 15:11
Ya know, he’s on Salter street. So yeah, there’s, there was a place in, in the storefront of tables. 17 before we took it over was a place called noodles. It was one of these like, neighborhood bars where they sold like fried ham sandwiches diner. Yeah, Labatt, 50s for 350 A bottle, right. And like, you know, the neighborhood color colorful people would go in that Ron had a chair in there with the plaque that said the mayor above his chair and like Rosa institution, right. I remember one night where he was 17. It’s like, dinner service. It’s kind of slowing down 930 10 o’clock, like on a Wednesday, and I’m standing there chatting with Mikey or bartender, longtime employee and dude walks in. He’s kind of looking around, like, confused us. And he’s like, like, it’s like this noodles. And we’re like, oh, it used to be noodles. Yeah, long, long time ago. And he’s like, oh, man, I wanted my first beer to be at Nozomi What do you mean your first beer he’s like, I just got out of jail. He just got to jail. It’s got a canes like wanted to come right back to his favorite breaking hole and have a beer and everything changed. Like I felt like wow, this guy’s world is different.

Erik Joyal 16:20
When we first over there the dawn, the dawn jail was still

John Sinopoli 16:23
open. Yeah, Don Joe.

Qasim Virjee 16:24
So it’s not know the hospital

Erik Joyal 16:26
now. Yeah,

Qasim Virjee 16:28
I always I don’t know, I just have a shutter walking. But but

Erik Joyal 16:30
but so guys would get like, yeah, release from the Don jail and then wander down to Queens Street and they’d be looking for a couple of pops.

Qasim Virjee 16:40
Couple. Yeah. Have some drinks? For they steal some primer and go back in the slammer? Yeah. Wow. The color. So that whole, like rich experience of being in the East End? Right? Having what three at the height? Maybe three locations at the time? What? What had you wanting to bust out to expand out of the neighborhood? Or was that not even a thing? It’s like,

Erik Joyal 17:08
I just think there were just there were other opportunities that presented itself and yeah, we, you know, we had most of our businesses in the East End and, and that was great. And I think we’ll always have a presence in the East End for sure. You know, but we, we saw opportunities to sort of branch out and we always sort of felt to and whether this is misguided or not, but being in the East End, we always felt like we were overlooked. Okay, the work we were doing the product that we were putting out the type of hospitality the type of employers we were, are, it continued to be and, you know, both of us always felt like you know, as soon as you get over the east of the Don Valley, you got no respect. And, and we wanted to I think part of it but I think part of it was probably a bit of ego too, you know, like let’s go let’s go downtown. Let’s get you know, go to the west end and you know, see what we can do. Mm hmm.

John Sinopoli 18:06
Before before we even open something in eastern we actually open another Leslieville restaurant guard which still operate right guard last about four or five years ago, we open that at the corner of Carlin done das attached to the crow’s theatre to the first Dramatic Arts Theater, new built built in years and it was built like in Leslieville so as you can see, like letting go continues to like drive arts and culture forward in a way and you know, that’s been a great project for us and it’s in like you could walk from a scurrying attack at the guard to less than about 10 minutes but totally different concept and in different vibe and bit of a different neighborhood and

Erik Joyal 18:46
quit actually it’s a friendship or even a different clientele to a very

John Sinopoli 18:49
different clientele is very super interesting. How that Yeah, different clientele. And me Of course, there’s some parallel regulars but and so yeah, we’ve had like, so we had high low bar still, we had a scurrying attack with Garda last, we had, like, moved on from the Bravo hotel, we’re like, okay, so, like, someone called us with a project in the West End, like, is it time? Is it time for us to like, not be in this neighborhood anymore and do some other things? And we, I think it was, it was, it was time for us to do it was we were 1213 years into the business maybe more 14 years. And yeah, we didn’t want to be known as just the guys who have restaurants in Eastern, the Eastern mafia, and not that we don’t love operating there. Like honestly, we’re super grateful to all of the clientele that continue to like support us there. Yeah. But how many places can you open in 115 minute walk right?

Qasim Virjee 19:43
Um, yeah, it’s so interesting. So then I guess King Street was the like, a scary King Street. Yeah, it was the

John Sinopoli 19:52
that’s the West Okay, that’s the only I shouldn’t say the only but yeah, that’s the only restaurant we have.

Qasim Virjee 19:58
Interesting project right like talk entrepreneurially as operators, a new build, that you guys are on the retail level of. So it’s entirely new, which means that you weren’t like table 17 style inheriting anything yet to build it from scratch. That experience itself. I guess after the hotel project, probably, you know, you had some chops in that.

Erik Joyal 20:20
Yeah, we’ve done it. We did it with Garda last as well. We know, that was

Qasim Virjee 20:24
things I was brand new at the time, it was a it

Erik Joyal 20:27
was a pretty, very close to it. I mean, it was a retail store, but it didn’t have anything that would

John Sinopoli 20:32
mechanically that was a from scratch builder. Yeah, exactly.

Erik Joyal 20:35
So to be honest, like, we understood the the construction process really well sure understood the design process really well. So it wasn’t, you know, we went into that project with our eyes wide open. And then, you know, from a build point of view, you know, we always use the same like construction partner, who’s a construction management company that focuses on restaurants, and we’ve had a long standing relationship with those people. So we were felt to be in very, very safe hands. And and, and so again, we were able to actually turn that project around really quickly as well, given the given the size and the scope of building that restaurant out from basically a concrete box.

Qasim Virjee 21:21
Is that and is that a condo? Like? Do you guys own that? Or is it No, no, we rent landlord,

Erik Joyal 21:26
we have a landlord. Okay, so it’s one of the big landlords in Toronto. And then there’s offices, there’s, it’s a 16 storey building, and it’s primarily the buildings primarily occupied by Shopify. Right. Our friends, yeah, I

John Sinopoli 21:38
need to go get

Erik Joyal 21:39
into go. Those are the two sort of main tenants in there. I think there’s a couple of other ones, but they’re very, very small. But yeah, that was, you know, it was a It’s a beautifully designed building. You know, it’s sort of right in the heart of the action. And we just thought it was a good opportunity. We know the landlord a little bit as well. So there was some familiarity there. Sure. So all the pieces of the puzzle sort of, you know, fit together. But it was in its it was and continues to be a fairly ambitious project. It was, it was pretty expensive. Yeah, certainly a lot more expensive than anything we had done. Previously and independently,

Qasim Virjee 22:17
right. Yeah, right. It’s got to be ridiculous.

Erik Joyal 22:21
It’s not cheap. Yeah. It’s not cheap.

Qasim Virjee 22:24
Yeah, retail. I don’t know. I don’t think there’ll be a calling of these rates, hopefully, or, yeah, it seems like but I would like

Erik Joyal 22:29
to, I wish, like from

John Sinopoli 22:30
your mouth to god’s ear, remember? I don’t think so

Qasim Virjee 22:33
when we were considering expanding all over the place, you know, 2018 19. And I started doing audits on opportunities, because start well, it’s all about retail access, right and walk in straight into your office or meeting or whatever. I was so shocked to see ghetto landlords on Queen Street West in dilapidated 100 year old buildings charging $120 a square foot right, when office still at that time was, you know, averaging at 50 bucks. So, you know, we’ll somewhere

Erik Joyal 23:01
in between there on in our in our spot. But yeah, it’s it’s an interesting.

Qasim Virjee 23:11
So let’s talk about the maybe return to or refocus a little bit on the east end, because you guys in the last little while opened up a new evolutionary step in, indeed, in what you guys do. It’s not just about restaurants, correct? Yeah. Well, I

Erik Joyal 23:29
mean, that was born out of necessity, in many ways.

Qasim Virjee 23:33
We’re talking, of course, about the American market, you

Erik Joyal 23:35
know, retail, a retail shop. And that was really born out of the out of, you know, when we went into full survival mode, a year and a half ago, yeah, when everything was closed down. And we started selling wine out of Askari and attacca as like a little retail boutique kind of stuff. And then we started adding on different products and some prepared foods and meal kits and things of that nature. And it started to go really well. And, and then we and then we were allowed to open the restaurants again, but only outside. So we had only outdoor dining, right. And then we continued to use the indoor space as a retail store. And it was great. It was another great avenue to connect with different customers that maybe don’t necessarily go out for dinner. But you know, there was just there was so many there was so much upside to it. And we thought to ourselves, you know, like, Okay, well, indoor dining is going to come back eventually. And what are we gonna do with this new little business that we’ve created?

Qasim Virjee 24:33
Yeah, to what degree can you commit to this evolution you know repurposing of spaces difficult to commit to as a as someone renting the space?

Erik Joyal 24:41
Totally. And then as luck would have it, there was a place just down the way like that came available on the same block on the opposite corner. That was a sort of a cafe type situation was all sort of pretty much like beautifully done really, really well set up. We had a pre previous ended the relationship with the landlord, the people that own the building, and they were good customers of ours and stuff like that. And we thought, well, what the hell, let’s just, let’s just take the space over, worked out a really great, really, really nice deal with the landlord in terms of sort of helping us get get going. And we, we sort of fashion this place out like a read it like a proper retail store. So it’s like a little bit. It’s like a wine boutique prepared foods, coffee, get a glass of wine, you can sit outside, like it’s sort of this is this really cool little sort of hybrid,

John Sinopoli 25:33
I got to say that it’s we, we got to mention when we talk about this concept that it would not be possible without a regulatory change that happened with the government. Right. And that is the ability for restaurants to sell clothes, bottles, alcohol with takeout, right. And so that regulatory change was in a very, very important evolution of the liquor laws in Ontario, and what we hope to be one step of many and permanent because it is made it is permanent, it is okay. Yeah, they made, it was temporary for a year, and then they made it permanent last January, and that that regulatory change is kind of the first drop over the waterfall of changes that we need in the liquor and alcohol regulations in this city, in this province, rather, yeah, to move No, basically to make our jurisdiction competitive with other jurisdictions because we’re not at the moment, right. And so that was huge. And not just for us, that model has been filed in many neighborhoods around town. Even if you’re not a bottle shop, or a retail store, selling food and alcohol together, even if you’re just the restaurant, the ability for people to see I like that bottle of wine, can I buy one to go

Qasim Virjee 26:46
home? Absolutely. It should not feel like a criminal, kind of walking out

John Sinopoli 26:50
the door, the bottle wine, which is so crazy that in our society that that was so restrict wrong and restricted, and clearly was never wrong, but it was restricted. So I think that that regulatory change was huge, right? And we got to tip our hat to the people in government who understood what they were, who they were helping when they did that. And yeah, people like us to survive, and then create new vibrancy in neighborhoods, like create new venues, and no one wants to compete with the LCBO. What we want to do is compliment Sure, and, you know, it is really important to that I think the fabric of neighborhoods, right that people are able to buy prepared foods, and a few cans of beer, and a bottle of wine. And like a nicely aperitif tomorrow or something to finish their meal at home, something you don’t find in the LCBO because frankly, the LCBO can only do so much. And

Qasim Virjee 27:43
yeah, I think that the liquor controls historically have been limitations to the evolution of entrepreneurialism in the hospitality sector 100%. And it’s a weird one because I think everyone until a couple years ago kind of like hated. You know, the fact that even if you were licensed you had to buy from the person, the institution that is making money from all over the place just doesn’t change. It doesn’t change. There’s still everything’s overpriced in this province. Yeah, the the tax

John Sinopoli 28:09
situation isn’t changed and right. And to be frank, you know, we would never argue about changing what the retail taxes for people we would like to see. The next step is that wholesalers sure, like us, like people who buy and resell alcohol buy at wholesale can buy at wholesale prices, which we tell someone from the States or Europe that we pay the same price people pay off the shelf, they’re like, What how do you make any money? Exactly? Yeah. So that’s part of the the the challenge that we have to continue to overcome in this province. And I think that, you know, also the reach like if you live in a small town, or a suburb, you sometimes you get to drive 15 minutes to get to an LCBO that’s ridiculous that you’d have to buy a case of beer or a bottle of wine. You’ve got to drive so far, like why can’t neighborhood stores, pubs, restaurants, be that community service as well.

Qasim Virjee 28:59
Right. Agreed. 100% Chinchin there’s my nautical rant. No, but I totally agree. I totally agree. And it’s funny because the it’s tough to get into politics because it’s like a rabbit hole. Right.

John Sinopoli 29:15
But that’s not politics, though. I know. I was public policy. Yes. To say yes. Public Policy. Yeah. Not one party or the other. Every party. Yep. That’s been empowering. And the province has failed to enact progressive changes to the liquor law. So it’s not political. It’s completely just good entrepreneurial business policy.

Qasim Virjee 29:33
100% 100%. Yeah, I mean, so what I was gonna say is that it’s funny that the media, a lot of mass media has has politicized the narrative around this issue is what I was gonna say, because, you know, applauding certain politicians or demonizing other ones on this issue is championing the rights of entrepreneurs in the small business men on the street trying to make a buck. And these poor guys they need all the help they can get becomes the rhetoric, when the truth is, at least from my vantage that macro optics are, you know, really the issue getting over people’s fear paradigms? Yes, educating the population differently than perhaps, you know, could have happened as the pandemic measures, protection measures were rolled out. And scare tactics became the norm. Right. You know, and I think that’s, that’s the thing that’s going to have lasting lasting effects on this industry is like, promoting the ability to get back to that neighborhood vibe, no matter where you are in the city. I’m across the board to encourage pedestrian interaction with retailers.

John Sinopoli 30:46
One of the things we’ve been lobbying for on is that the governments of all levels, spend as much time money and effort encouraging people now to go out and support these businesses create real programming efforts with serious dollars. I’m talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. st spend the same money doing that as they did telling people to stay home. Yeah, because they did the damage to our and rightfully so I’m not complaining about 10 people stay home with the right time, right course. But now, that damage is ingrained in our psyche, we need to, like, get out of that shift. And governments have a responsibility now to say, hey, if you’re double vaccinated, go exactly spend your money, have fun, have fun, chill out, like, like, give these people their livelihoods back and we

Qasim Virjee 31:35
see it all over the world. Like a good chunk of my career history was in music. And I partnered with the BBC on music festivals in England, right? That was one of our stop dates. London, Bombay, New York Toronto are the dates are the annual cycle that I go on around the world. But yeah, in England, you’re seeing a return to festival life. Yes. And that was a place arguably harder hit, you know, then Canada ever was and

Erik Joyal 32:01
continues to be right. But they’ve they’ve found a way to get on with their life. And that’s, that’s what we have to do here. I know, you know, it’s still tenuous, and there’s still the future’s somewhat uncertain, but Sure, but there’s a certain point at which we have to just live our lives.

Qasim Virjee 32:21
Yeah. And say, Hey, there, there is their husband, and whatever the solution exists to the problem that we scared you all about. And exactly if you’re double vaccinated, and this is like, again, applause for the measures of you know, vaccine passports where it becomes something that helps the unvaccinated it encourages push. Yeah, encourage them to get vaccinated. politics aside around you know, people’s fear paradigms on either side of that issue. For those who are absolutely get together, do your thing, right, don’t we’re, yeah, don’t don’t limit your ability to interact with each other. I think that’s the big thing for us. Anybody here at stairwell is like, Yeah, we really want to see people being able to collaborate and innovate. And that comes from working together. It’s not from

Erik Joyal 33:10
you can’t do it over zoom. No honest like that. That has its purpose and time and place. And that’s useful, but it’s not a 24/7 thing. The days of the Zoom meetings all day long. Certainly for me, they’re done. Oh,

Qasim Virjee 33:25
yeah. Yeah. And we’ve I mean, it’s like, it’s like I was telling you guys before we jumped in the in the in the room, right, is that? We’re seeing an evolution, as start? Well, we’re seeing an evolutionary step in the, you know, I guess, operational mechanics of businesses, small businesses, particularly medium sized, some publicly listed large companies with 1000s of employees like Shopify, who come to us saying, okay, look, we’re not sure what’s going on right now. We want to be remote first, right? And we want to do that not to shut off x, because that’s just douchey. Like a lot of people have done that. A lot of our tenants did that a lot of our member companies did that. At the beginning of pandemic, they were like, yeah, we can wash our hands of this operating expense that’s called rent, by making sure that the slaves, you know, do their work from home all day long, all night long and answer emails at midnight. But at the same time, with every company that you know, is of that ilk, there are so many that have woken up in the last little while saying, you know, what, we’d love for our staff to be able to not think of two or three weeks a year as their holiday time, right? Be able to say their career and they’re belonging to us as an organization facilitates their lifestyle as they want it and make holiday work life all more Congress by giving people the freedom to commune when they want as long as they’re getting what they need to get done. Done. It’s interesting.

John Sinopoli 34:47
I think you could take the same approach to a more macro level of like planning because I think what we’ve realized with the pandemic is that it may have been a mistake when cities like Toronto where there’s a neighborhood to work, there’s a neighborhood to live this neighborhood to play, right that we see now is a huge mistake, because the businesses in neighborhood where you work are devastated. Yep. And the business neighborhood you live are thriving because no one left their house. So like the core in Toronto, like the fact that nobody lives there like me. Of course, there’s some buildings, I shouldn’t say nobody, but like, the fraction of real estate there for living versus office is minimal. Yeah. And there’s a real, I think, movement now. And there should be continued movement to rezone to change the way we think about the core and those buildings, and maybe take an approach like they do in Japan, where every neighborhood has worked, live play. Yeah, there’s bars on third floors of neighborhoods. And then there’s next door building is an apartment building extra buildings and office building.

Erik Joyal 35:48
I think a great example of that type of thinking, actually, is what’s being built just down the way here are the well agreed. Oh, the well, that master though. Yeah. Because that’s a perfect example of business like offices, retail, and residential. Yeah, the biggest sort of mixed use project of that nature in Canadian history, as far as I’m aware, yeah, literally millions. Currently,

John Sinopoli 36:16
we’re biggest, currently the biggest construction project in Nigeria.

Qasim Virjee 36:19
Yes, I love that kind of stuff. But I do also think that it’s fucking horrible. In the sense of shopping mall culture that is so pervasive in North America, what we want to see, you know, as someone who waives the placemaking flag and actually used to work with the project for public spaces in New York. You know, one of the great advocacy organizations historically pushing this movement of a return to cities, right, the Jane Jacobs, William White kind of stuff is like, we want to see street life evolve, you know, and it’s not just about like, our patio is allowed to be open or blah, blah, blah. And that takes planning that takes a will that takes

John Sinopoli 36:56
but it means people who live in neighborhoods understanding that in order to keep their neighborhood vibrant, they have to participate, they have to have offices there to let people like rezone a couple buildings and, and they have to allow certain things to happen there that they traditionally wouldn’t love, and maybe some mixed use or higher density stuff. So that the the pressures of urbanization even out because right now, in especially in Toronto, they’re concentrated in these very, very small pockets. And I think it makes for a very artificial and challenging way to live and also do business, right? Because as a business person, like, Oh, you have a restaurant like say, you know, typical Lakeshore, where it’s all condos, like, the only thing you can do, there is night time, and there’s no office, like, I imagined lunch there might be dead, you know, like, and then in the core, people close their business at 8pm. Because everyone’s gone, right? Like that just doesn’t like why if you’re paying rent all day long, you should be able to create demand. 24 like, the whole day long? It’s challenging to do that, given the zoning and the delineation that happens in our city. I think it just, it’s the next step of maturation. Yeah, of the urban concept we think of as Toronto.

Qasim Virjee 38:11
Yeah, because we’ve got, we’ve got so many historical ills that plague to this day, our rate of evolution in the city, you know, and I think, you know, the GTA concept is so problematic, you know, for so many reasons,

John Sinopoli 38:28
because it takes away the character of every neighborhood outside of actual Toronto.

Qasim Virjee 38:32
And then the popular, you know, there’s this popular aesthetic, you know, tip the hat to people like Drake, who kind of sell the, you know, let’s call it a brand. It’s not Toronto, it’s the six. And they’re selling this brand of something that’s an Instagram lifestyle. It’s King Street West, you know, it’s bling, bling, bling, bling, is my daughter says, she says, Daddy, look at this bling, bling. It’s not a bracelet. It’s bling, bling. Um, you know, it was different when the nightlife was in the clubbing district, you know, and was college St. Those two neighborhoods had character for their purpose, in a sense. And then the hybridization of that kind of like, dining nightlife. Photo worthy, you know, I’m so cool in a global context, that’s my generic aesthetic, you know, kind of also robs the I don’t know, it kind of robs the neighborhoods where that happens. From authenticity from also pedestrian participation, blah, blah, blah.

John Sinopoli 39:36
Yeah, I don’t want too much of anything in one neighborhood. Yeah. And I think that’s what’s great about say, like Riverside, where we open table 17. It’s a real mix. There’s people who work there during the day. There’s film studios, like five minute walk away. There’s like a, like a historical neighborhood to our north. And there was also some industrial stuff not too far away. And I think that’s the kind of mix we need. he’d, you know, if you think of the most vibrant neighborhoods in New York, you think like SOHO and West Village. And these are neighborhoods that have everything going on

Qasim Virjee 40:08
cities within cities. Yeah, whatever the depth of experience is, yeah. Yeah. I mean, hey, this, we’re trying to bring that experience to this neighborhood.

John Sinopoli 40:17
I learned its lesson with the nightclub district in, you know, where the federal fashion district there were. Yeah, it turned into only clubs and those old abandoned buildings for 10 or 15 years. And we saw the problems that that brought, and now they’re like, no, no, no, we need to build some condos here. We need to build some office towers here. And we need to change like, it cannot be just one thing. And I am excited for what’s coming. But hey, like COVID has said, the downtown core, the financial districts in specifically needs more diversification.

Qasim Virjee 40:49
It’s going to be interesting, who knows what the long term impact of this will be, but as let’s call it, the occupancy levels of the urban core, particularly commercial real estate remain high for against our history, you know, they stay at published rates around 10 15% unpublished, maybe as high as 25%. Scary, we’re becoming Calgary kind of thing. If that continues, I kind of applaud that because, you know, we’re gonna landlords are already I have meetings with people who are who are already thinking of repurposed space, make space modular use cases, seasonal use cases. It’s difficult because typically, our landlords in the core here in Toronto are three, you know, mega corporation type, bureaucratic pension funds. Yeah. Not super entrepreneurial. No. So they’re kind of like, ideas, ideas, let’s have five years of meetings on it. And in the meantime, we’ll hold the space for anyone who wants to lease that kind of thing. Right. And then rents haven’t gone down in those buildings. So I don’t know, I think there’s hope for people making the other neighborhoods definitely do more for them than perhaps evolving the downtown core. But also, something interesting that I’ve seen the last little while is his, or this summer was how the GTA swarmed the Harbourfront. Mm hmm. That was really interesting to see. Because

John Sinopoli 42:18
swarms a good word, if you ever drove by Lakeshore on a Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon, holy moly, like, yeah, yeah, true. Right. And I think

Erik Joyal 42:27
one thing about the last 18 months is it’s forced people out of their comfort zone to explore different parts of the, the GTA of the city. And so I know from my experience, like, why would take my family would go for walks on Saturday afternoons go to different parts of the city, different parts of lecture. I’ve lived here most of my life, I had no idea existed. Yeah. And so that was one good thing is like, that discovery of, you know, what, there’s a lot in the city to see and to do and to get out and to experience that, you know, when you can sometimes be stuck in your, in your little neighborhood. And not before to the to explore. But you know, during COVID You know, there’s only so many times you can walk around your own neighborhood. It’s like enough. Like,

Qasim Virjee 43:10
and and it’s really so sure else. Yeah. And what’s cool is that it’s kind of taught people about the value of neighborhoods. So hopefully, people do seek out other neighborhoods to participate in you know, yeah, I definitely agree. It’s like, it’s, it’s needed for the continued evolution of the city for fun things kind of being more sustainable, that aren’t just like private equity backed, you know, XYZ Moroccan fusion restaurants. Yeah,

Erik Joyal 43:37
no, I mean, that one of the things that I take away is that I never really fully appreciate it just how lucky we are in the city to have such extensive greenspace Yes, it’s a big part of the trails and this and ravines I mean, I knew it was there. And I don’t live far away from a ravine that we, you know, go walk the dog in, but I discovered so many different places in the city where you can get out and be outside and, and that I think, was something that I think maybe a lot of us took for granted or take for granted. But it’s a pretty unique thing about the city and one benefit of the last 18 months is that we’re four were sort of forced to make those discoveries.

Qasim Virjee 44:18
Any particular anecdotal park that you want to shadow? No. Like, don’t grab my space.

John Sinopoli 44:27
Sorry.

Qasim Virjee 44:29
Yeah, I love Cedarville Park. That’s that’s a park that no one outside of our neighborhood kind of knows. I go there a lot. Yeah. And we live just just a block from Cedarville Park. So it’s brilliant. It’s again, like to that diversity issue. I mean, there are a number of parks that have off leash dog park areas, they have splash pools for kids, the youngins that don’t have kids will know what a splash pool is or splash park or whatever. But there’s water that you can jump in and out of you know, and then tennis courts. Right sounds Sports places private spaces. There’s a lot of really nice parks. I agree.

John Sinopoli 45:05
Yeah, that and I know Eric’s got three kids. I have a little one. And I’ve discovered every splash pad in the city. Yeah, like, man, you I can’t go to the same one again. Give me a new splash pad. Yeah, cuz you need to invent new games for each one. And yeah, so it but yeah, it’s been it’s been interesting. I did enjoy discovering the lake especially westward, like Tomoko Mississauga is a lot of great parks with with actual beaches. Yeah, that like little mini, kind of private beaches, like people know about them, but they’re not swarmed like the Lakeshore and right in the downtown. And that was that was lovely. We invaded a lot of neighborhoods and made some noise and had some fun. Yeah, no, I think it’s great. And again, oh, there’s a cool, a kebab place here. I need to check out this kebab Johnny. And I call Eric. I’m like, Dude, there’s a cool, like, we like that kind of stuff. And yeah, when you say clothes, what kind of kebab? So you’re talking? This was afghan? Yeah. Okay, Afghan kebabs. And I love Mississauga. There’s a lot of good cuisine, like so in my in laws are there. So I discovered a bunch of those, which I still go to enjoy very much. And they were doing well, which is great to see.

Qasim Virjee 46:17
Yeah, it’s great to see community supporting the, you know, any business that they like, right. And you can’t Amazon a kebab and I’m glad for that. Exactly. No, no. Good. I’m absolutely. So I think we’ll we’ll definitely have you guys back. I want to do I want to do I’ve been saying this for a while. But I’d like to do more of these that kind of bring different voices together from different industries so we could see compare, you know, what’s happening in the city specifically, and the neighborhoods that we exist in, it’s nice to know that you guys are down the road. I’m glad this is that was part of how we came together. And to know that you’re still post pandemic down the road still kickin it, still kicking it on King Street,

Erik Joyal 46:56
still still grinding it out?

Qasim Virjee 46:58
I know, right?

Erik Joyal 46:58
What can we do? That’s all we can do it one day at a time. One day at a time.

Qasim Virjee 47:03
Awesome. For anyone that is watching or listening to this. Anything you want to shout out about things that you welcome people to participate in at any of the restaurants, the shop, or even hires because I know that’s an issue.

Erik Joyal 47:21
Oh my god. Yeah. Yeah. Anybody looking for a job? Come see us. Anytime we’ll train any kind of matter where Yeah,

John Sinopoli 47:27
it is a challenge. We’ll figure it out labor market out there for sure. Challenging labor market, I would say that, you know, we’ve become a company now. It’s not just about restaurants, we develop during the pandemic, we really developed our events and catering company. And we do of course, we delved into the virtual events deep right and became very good at that continue to do that. But also, you know, we’re now good at like, not just corporate catering like we did before, but really good events like wedding we’ve done a couple weddings already this fall, people are getting back to 100% of weddings. It’s great.

Qasim Virjee 48:01
We’re getting leads every day for wedding. Yeah. So so we we

John Sinopoli 48:05
were welcoming that welcome people to celebrate, again, come into the restaurant come into the store. Basically, whatever your comfort level is, right now can service you in terms of food and beverage, whether it’s walking into a store, buying some prepared food and lasagna, or some of our handmade pasta in a bottle of cool wine, or it’s sitting down for like a five course dinner at Askari and having the whole experience. Yeah,

Erik Joyal 48:27
and we’re not, you know, we’ve rabac In many ways, and we’re, you know, we’re, as one of our new employees, and we’re leaning into things again, we’re not we’re not being tentative about our menus, we’re not being tentative about our service, right, we’re leaning into it, we want people back in the restaurants, you know, we’re, we, we do what we need to do to make sure everybody’s feeling comfortable and safe and and all that but the vibe is back. Yeah. And and we’re we’re totally leaning into it from a food point of view from a service point of view from a wine point of view. No, no more half measures, we’re getting back to business and we’re gonna we want people to come in, have fun, be blown away and provide, you know, hospitality experience that we’ve been working towards. For 17 years,

John Sinopoli 49:17
we’ve been selling our we’ve been telling our customers like our customers, our staff for for a decade and a half. We’re in the good times business. Yeah. And the past 18 months. Good times, we haven’t been providing good times. We’ve been providing stuff, right? And we’re like serviceable, so yeah, it’s like here’s some stuff here’s some stuff and now we’re like no no, no, like, like it’s not about taking an order put it on the table. Yeah, it’s like remember why people leave the house to have fun

Qasim Virjee 49:43
experiences.

John Sinopoli 49:44
And we want you to upgrade tighter. Yeah, so So it’s exciting to it was tough to transition back like we’ve had a few months of like, oh, yeah, we got it like yes, a back and forth. We’re not locked down. We’re not trying to offer everything everyone anymore. We’re gonna go back to the core why we do what we do. Yeah, and provide that good like, it

Erik Joyal 50:01
was really hard though I’ll tell you what, it was really hard to get back into that mindset for 18 months is all about surviving, it was all about figuring out new streams of revenue to keep the doors open and building, you know, a completely new business. Every week, new business, something was different every you know, you throw stuff at the wall, and sometimes some would stick in some wouldn’t. But like the mindset was completely, completely different. Right? And then we started opening up the restaurants again, we open them all up on the same day back in June, or whatever it was. But we kind of forgot what we did before. Yeah, like it was sort of like, wait a second, where are we?

Qasim Virjee 50:38
What are we doing here grow in so many different ways? What’s so hard

Erik Joyal 50:42
to get back to like, the route of like, hospitality and the in person dining in all that, and and what we’re actually trying to experience we’re trying to provide, right, that wasn’t like a light switch. Like, we’re still like, Wait a second. This is what we were doing in 2019. Why the hell didn’t we think about this four months ago? Like it’s all there. So getting your brain and the team’s brain back into that type of disposition? For lack of a better term is way harder than I thought it would have been.

Qasim Virjee 51:14
But I’m liking it. Because I’ve we’ve gone through the same journey here at start well, in many ways, I’m likening it to, you know, when you when you go strength training, and I know all of us have been out of the gym for a while. Lose your muscle memory. Yeah. Like, do you remember when you’re like you’re dead lifting or doing whatever you’re doing in the gym, and he gets stronger and you hurt, you know, and then you hurt more the next day and you hurt even more the third day, then suddenly you feel strong and enabled. And it’s like that hurt is is

Erik Joyal 51:40
sorry. Like we’re like day two of hurt. Exactly. But we know we still got a couple more days we

Qasim Virjee 51:45
are Yeah, absolutely. But we’ve done the lifting. You know, we’ve done the lifting made the

Erik Joyal 51:50
commitment. Yeah. made the commitment got the gym pass made the commitment.

John Sinopoli 51:56
Does that mean this commitment translate the depth in our situation?

Qasim Virjee 52:00
Oh, exactly. Yeah,

Erik Joyal 52:02
yeah. We won’t talk about that. That’s a whole other

Unknown Speaker 52:04
that’s, that’s another pocket it is.

Qasim Virjee 52:05
It’s a great podcast. Talk about how the hell you survived this, you know, I’ll tell my story and then and then pass the baton to other people. Right. Well, it’s wicked catching up, guys. Thank

John Sinopoli 52:16
you guys.

Qasim Virjee 52:17
Thank you for joining me on the podcast. Okay. Awesome. Cheers.

Unknown Speaker 52:20
Bye bye.

/ Business
Ascari founders on the StartWell Podcast

Erik Joyal & John Sinopoli on the StartWell Podcast

Join Ascari Hospitality Group's founders for a conversation in our studio recorded for the StartWell Podcast.
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Ascari At Home - Not Your Average Risotto

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The Toronto based Ascari Hospitality Group recently joined us in the StartWell test kitchen to demonstrate one of their new meal kit recipes.