I was working on some low budget Christmas movies at an old school across from Dofasco in 2010. The film industry is a tricky business in the sense that you are always looking for your next meal. Once you finish a show or movie, you could be back to work right away or you could be off for an undetermined amount of time. So I decided to check on Craigslist for any commercial properties at which I could start my own business during the off times in film.
The first property that I came across was 301 James St North. I called the owner and set up a meeting for that day. I loved the place instantly. The windows opened up to the street and it had a great big private back yard that I envisioned as a patio.
When I met with the owner and his dad, we a had a great talk about my ideas and they were on board. I can still remember the excitement that I felt when they told me that they liked my concept and that I was a frontrunner for the tenancy. The lease was only $900 per month and with the money that I was making at the time, I knew that I could float it for a couple months to complete the renovations and get it open.
That night I excitedly told the people that I was associated with at the time about the concept.
They were dead set against it and weren’t having any of it. I was told that most restaurants fail in the first year of operations and that the idea would not be supported on any level. Their numbers were accurate, but I believed in the concept and my ability. The training that I had received working in film was equivalent to opening a new business. You have to come into a vacant building, create a team, make business partners, and most importantly — sell a successful product. I had watched many talented people do that before me and paid close attention.
Also, I was in charge of ordering the 2nd meal for a crew of 65 people whenever we went into overtime on a shoot day… which was often. I was tasked with ordering any food from any restaurant between Dundas & Scarborough (depending on location) for a group of opinionated, overworked, well-travelled, self-appointed food connoisseurs. Their readily available critiques would be the foundation of my menu.
The next day I received a phone call from the owner to inform me that I had the place if I wanted it. I was elated. He had to go away for the long weekend to a wedding, but said that he would draw up the paperwork when he got back. This gave me 6 days to convince everyone in my camp that I could pull this off. I was so pumped that I couldn’t sleep. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head.
The weekend had come and gone and I hadn’t heard anything back from him. I left a few messages and was starting to get discouraged. When I finally heard back from him, he told me that he had received other offers from people willing to pay more money and that he had no choice but to go with them.
I was gutted, devastated, and crestfallen. I told him that if things didn’t work out, to please keep me first in line. He said that he would and that was that. As the next few weeks went by, I didn’t stop thinking about what could have been. I wanted desperately to build a business from the ground up and be my own boss, with no ceiling for success. I had been working my ass off in the Department of Foreign Affairs to no avail. So I went in to the film industry and worked my ass off there, only to realize that I was just as disposable as the 65 water bottles laying around on the set at any given time.
Then on June 9th, 2010 at 3:57 pm, the magical phone call came: “Hey, I was talking more about it with my parents and I’ve changed my mind. The place is yours again if you still want it”. Well I’d heard that one before, so without any consideration for the people that my selfish decision may affect, I left work immediately and went down to 301 James St North and signed a one year lease to secure my vision. It was done. I was back on cloud nine. Now I just had to convince everybody that I had made the correct decision. So… I planned my attack. I was to bring them to the art crawl, show them the amazing potential of the street, take them by the ‘soon to be’ restaurant and then drop the bomb.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned. The night before art crawl, I was sitting at work when I received a phone call from my associates. The conversation was moving along swimmingly. Then out of the blue, one of them asked me: “Whatever happened to that place that you were looking at on James Street?” I turned white and went completely silent. They broke the silence with “You didn’t take that place did you? YOU DIDN’T SIGN THE LEASE WITHOUT TALKING TO US FIRST DID YOU? DID YOU?” Two minutes later I was excommunicated and had no place to live. And I knew that there would be other consequences, but I deserved them. To take on a new business venture without having the support of your partners is NOT a good relationship decision.
This was going to be uphill both ways, in a blizzard, with no shoes on. Not only did I have no idea how to run a restaurant or the inner workings of the licensing, the Canada Revenue Agency, or dealing with employees, but I had most people against me on this one.
The paperwork was signed. My heart and mind were set on it, so I had to give it a go.
The first mission: develop a design for the inside and the patio and get the renovations underway. I didn’t want to put the place together overnight like a chain restaurant. I knew that I had a blank canvas and that, overtime, I would find the pieces to create the final picture, so I didn’t rush it. And by didn’t rush it, I mean that it took me two years to get it open, because I started getting a lot of film jobs.
Having a non-productive expense that was mainly used for partying didn’t sit well with a lot of people either. This is the period in which it became ‘Club 301’. I was working between 12-14 hours, 5 days a week and then coming in to the resto at night to build the décor. While, at the same time building an after-hours reputation and a dependency on partying.
I couldn’t express my excitement about my new venture with my associates, nor at my current employment situation, so I rallied my few supporters, along with some opportunists and escaped to my imaginary life with great frequency. A road that, while it seems fun along the way, never finishes in the promised land.
In September of 2010, my contract ended on the Christmas movies and I was getting down to some good work in both the restaurant and City Hall to get this thing open. Then in November, I received a phone call from a former producer that I had worked with asking me to head up production for a movie being filmed in Sault Ste Marie. It was supposed to liken itself to ‘Trainspotting’ in the sense that it was a drug fuelled conundrum with fortuitous circumstances. It was based on Irvine Welsh’s book entitled ‘Ecstasy’. It sounded fun and I was looking forward to my first chance to take the lead for my department, so I accepted on the spot
I was head of the production department for a 5 million dollar film. That budget should have afforded me a team of 7 experienced individuals and 2 days off per week. However, I got a plus 1 as my assistant, whom had never worked a day in film, and that was the size of my team. Needless to say, no work on the restaurant was done for the duration of that shoot as I was working 18 hours a day all 7 days of the week.
We ended up finishing the details of the movie in my potential restaurant, using it as our off-site production office, which afforded me a little revenue to pay the rent. This lasted until March.
I soldiered through with the glow of focusing on my project. And then another phone call with an offer for work. I was to be the 2nd in command of the production office on a pilot project for NBC… in Scarborough. I accepted and my restaurant opening was further put on hold. Then we finished that show and the same team was hired on to do ‘Rookie Blue’ and another pilot show called ‘Saving Hope’ which was shooting back to back for 3 years. This meant that I would have to continue to build this restaurant AFTER the laborious 14-16 hour days.
It was a good problem to have. I wasn’t going to complain about having film work after the drought that I had gone through especially when they’re providing paid meals — I just didn’t anticipate the film work to be back to back to back.
Meanwhile back on James, I started running events on the key nights to build interest in and get recognition for the new space. I wasn’t sure what I was going to name it. I toyed with the idea of calling it “SHOWCASE”. I had planned on having local and travelling chefs pick their night and create events that would put us on the map. It took a different turn and I needed a new name.
Then came the thought of naming it after my grandparents on my dad’s side; one of the havens of my childhood that gave me great memories and an unparalleled comfort. I wanted to convey this experience to potential patrons. That’s where the name ‘Jack & Lois’ came from. Two of the most beautiful people in the world that you could ever meet, whom always made you feel welcome and gave you your best dining experience in a ‘homey’ setting. It just made sense. Hopefully I could replicate that. I now had a direction, with a solid vision.
Unfortunately, without the strength of character required, I allowed myself some indulgences coupled with bad decisions that led to jeopardies. I also, foolheartedly, put trust in people that had no credentials.
The first time it almost went down in flames was art crawl in the summer of 2011. I was featuring an artist at my space, but couldn’t be there until late, as I was 50 km away, working in Mississauga. So, I hired someone that I had met on the party scene who claimed to have management experience and did the books for her family business, etc…
I arrived at the resto around 11:30 pm to find it full of people accompanied by a busy street. In my mind it was a success. I closed down the resto at the AGCO appropriate time and then in a moment of bad judgement, I opened the door to a couple of fellows out front that I had believed to be ‘art enthusiasts’. Five more of them came from around the corner and they infiltrated the premises with the skill and precision of Navy Seals. Five minutes later, I was up against the wall, facing a barrage of questions coming from four different guys with their badges in my face while the other three continued to rummage through the place. They were officers for the Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario.
They informed me that they had 7 charges on me and that they were going to take me down. At that moment I kicked everyone out, including the person that I had hired to run the night. The officers wanted to speak to her, because her name was on the SOP and she was technically responsible. Through some misguided sense of loyalty, I didn’t give her up, even though her guests were busted with drugs downstairs. I simply told the officers that it was my place and that I was directly responsible for anything that had occurred that night, even though I had just arrived from my other job.
They grilled me for an hour straight. I kept telling them the same thing over and over again. The actual truth. I made a bad decision by whom I had brought on board to run the event and I accept all responsibility. After things cooled down, we started talking about the art while one of the agents drew up the paperwork.
It was at this point that the tone of the conversation changed. They were convinced that I wasn’t feeding them BS. The agent in charge pulled me aside and told me that they were going to drop 6 of the 7 charges and cite me with the least damaging of them: ‘failure to clear evidence of service’.
I was very thankful for and appreciative of their leniency. They wrote me a ticket which set my court date for November 3rd at 10:30 am. No options. Although I wasn’t entirely familiar with the AGCO policy, I was quite certain that if you receive any infractions before being issued your license, the chances of approval decline exponentially, so I was scared. At that moment I was coming to the realization that I had destroyed my vision, before it ever came to be.
The building was vacant of my ‘guests’ and the team of officers had just left. I was alone and once again gutted, devastated, and crestfallen. To add insult to injury, I checked the sales from the night, only to realize that the person that I wouldn’t give up to the officers had taken all of my money and the remaining alcohol before evacuating. It was a dark moment. I sat slumped on the floor for a few hours before picking my carcass up and heading for the door. On my way out I realized that someone had stolen my Blue Tooth speaker, an iPad, and my new drill.
The following Monday, I received a phone call from the licensing department to inform me that my capacity would be limited to 15 people because I didn’t have 3 parking spots. This was based on an antiquated by-law that would only support businesses that people could drive to. What’s worse is that it didn’t apply to the other side of the street as it was a coin-flip decision by the City to get rid of that by-law for half the businesses. I was just on the wrong side of the street.
So… this meant that if I was able to get my liquor license after these charges, I would be looking over my shoulder every day for the AGCO to come in and do a head count where at any given time it would cost me $100 per person over my capacity limit and a potential revocation of my liquor license, as well as municipal fines from both the City and the Fire Department. I was offered no solutions regarding licensing. The city was not yet ‘Open For Business’.
How was I going to get out of this mess and get the restaurant up and running? Grovelling? Luck? A little from each?
If you’re interested, I’ll tell you next month. Other hot topics will include: a bad lease, sabotage, more city roadblocks, bad neighbours and the inevitable downfall. Plus some cool stories about good things that happened and a long list of things NOT TO DO.