Farm'r Story Part 1: Why we were stupid enough to start a Toronto restaurant

Hello, I’m writing this blog post and many of the others you’ll see here as one of the owners of Farm’r. My name is Greg and I have a confession: in no way am I the ideal person to start a restaurant.

Hi! Here’s a picture of me with my son this summer in the South Dakota Badlands

Hi! Here’s a picture of me with my son this summer in the South Dakota Badlands

I’ve never worked in a restaurant, only been an avid eater and repeated admirer of many delicious establishments.

I’ve never started a business either, but in my professional career in the world of finance I have worked with many and always wanted to start a business of my own.

Does it sound stupid yet? Well before deciding, let me introduce you to the team because I didn’t do this alone.

The Beginnings of the Idea

The initial idea to get in the food business began with my long-time friend Joy. Like me he had never started a restaurant. The closest he got was a high school job stretching pizza dough at a Little Caesars in Mississauga.

We knew each other from high school and university. Coming out of Wilfrid Laurier we got jobs after graduating with business degrees. They were sweet jobs too, mine in finance working day and night in mergers and acquisitions, Joy selling consumer goods in marketing at Procter & Gamble.

Over the years we loved to follow new restaurant openings and go for a meal, usually hearing about them through Toronto Life or BlogTO. Each time it would get us thinking, what if we started something like this? If we ever did, what sort of place would we open?

Eventually those conversations got a little more serious until one dinner together in September 2014 when we had a slightly different conversation, one about actually pursuing one of these ideas.

The idea quickly morphed into what I would consider to be a real hobby. Over the next few weeks we thought more about our idea and began to research. It was fun to think through the concept of a restaurant in detail.

We formed an idea, but struggled because we knew nothing about how to cook or run a restaurant. We began our search for a chef and partner and the first guy we met went by the name of W Kyle Webster.

Putting Together the Team

Kyle, Joy and I immediately clicked. We saw eye to eye on business strategy and what we loved and hated about the restaurant and food industry today. We were all aware we were contemplating jumping into a crowded market with the hundreds of Toronto restaurants out there already, but we had our own idea and liked it.

We were so “clever” we dreamed up a fast casual Asian restaurant, targeted towards a 25 to 35 year old downtown Toronto demographic. It was something like the Basil Box restaurant you see today, though we never made it happen.

We wrote a business plan and tried for almost two years to find a location, but could never pull the trigger. We even ran a pop-up restaurant in the summer of 2015 to test our menu, using a space on Dundas West now occupied by the restaurant Antler.

It failed because rents were expensive, landlords didn’t trust new concepts and we didn’t have a good grasp of what we were doing. We were scared, too scared to sign a 10 year lease and put our life savings at risk.

We crunched the numbers and they didn’t work. We could succeed if we put down everything and opened as a roaring success, but we fell way short of having the pockets to weather hiccups or any unexpected costs.

When the idea died we weren’t sad but we did feel defeated. At the same time we were glad we hadn’t thrown all we had at a big restaurant makeover. At least not yet.

The Genesis of Farm’r

I’m not sure if we were lucky or this was the beginning of the ‘stupid’ I mentioned above, but even though our first idea felt like a failure, we never stopped looking at locations for lease. After two years it became the norm, it was what we did in our spare time, look for underappreciated restaurant space.

We decided our Asian concept wouldn’t work, but that didn’t last long and we started developing a new idea, something closer to home. Our only criteria was:

  1. Make food that’s good for you, but tastes good

  2. Affordable meals in a casual environment

We found our space near the St Lawrence market that was owned by couple who ran a fish and chips joint. There was a kitchen at the front, a big bar in the middle and a pool table in the back.

Farm’r before our renovation. Kyle is on the left, Joy on the right.

Farm’r before our renovation. Kyle is on the left, Joy on the right.

Yes, before it was Farm’r there was a pool table

Yes, before it was Farm’r there was a pool table

This wasn’t what we wanted but we knew with some love and patience we could turn the place into our idea.

It was an amazing spot and we loved it. Right downtown, sandwiched between the St. Lawrence market on one side, the Distillery District on another side while being among a Toronto community housing neighbourhood with new condos all around.

We knew we wanted to be at the centre of bringing good food and making it accessible to everyone, so 140 The Esplanade made sense.

The Asian concept was dead, but here was still a chance to be stupid and realize our dream.

We struck a deal and got to work, obviously over budget and delayed by months.

Given where we were we decided to focus on local food, preferring a menu that changed when the growing seasons changed. Our biggest goal became to connect the people of Toronto with their food.

Today we serve Canadian meat, legumes, vegetables, beers and wines – most from Ontario and many from the GTA where possible.

Why We Might Be Stupid

Many people will tell you starting a restaurant is stupid. The margins are low, the market is competitive and the start-up costs are high.

At the writing of this post we’ve been open for 16 months and I honestly can’t answer whether we were stupid to open a restaurant or not. Since we’ve been open there have been some days where we’ve earned more than we spent, but on many days we lose money.

The numbers are getting better though, we have profitable days and we’re optimistic soon enough profit can be a regular occurrence.

More than a restaurant, we wanted to create an honest food brand that people could relate to, identify with and connect on many levels. Each of us will admit, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge more than we thought.

Most of the time our meals aren’t about the story of the farm where the food came from or the people who cooked. Day to day we’ve noticed our meals are about satisfying a craving from our customer. Yes, its about you, about taking a quick break from the day or spilling your afternoon’s thoughts to your loved one.

When we think back, usually the food and the restaurant get glossed over. To the customer eating the food, their story is about their day and what they did with it. To us the food is our story.

Is Farm’r a Success?

In a word, “no”, not yet. The jury is still out on the success of our idea. We aren’t sure if our future is opening another location, expanding to new products or closing up shop when our lease expires. All options are on the table.

There’s a chance though we could be successful, that the idea becomes more than just three guys trying to design the ideal environment to eat meat,potatoes and salad. There’s just as likely a chance we grow tired of competition and forfeit our dreams and allow the Jack Astor’s, McDonalds and Starbucks of the world to be daily food.

We have no idea what will happen, we just know we should try. We had to, and as the months tick by our dreams will change. Our most recent realization is we cannot only be about food, to tell the story we need more. What better way to tell our story than to write it down?

What I’ve told you in this post is only a small part of what we can tell. There were many other events and lessons we learned so far and we hope to be able to share them on this blog in the future.

If you are interested in hearing the story I invite you to come back to our blog again as we share more about us, more about Farm’r and more about the food around us.

Most importantly, we’d love to hear from you. If you want to hear something about our story, make a suggestion for the restaurant or anything else, click here.

Thanks for reading.

-Greg and the team at Farm’r

Greg MartinComment