With the death knell for Toronto businesses ringing out daily, one unique Roncesvalles’ restaurant has managed not only to keep their doors open but recently announced their expansion with a new Oakville location. Kelli Kieley spoke with Erin Baric, Co-owner, The Simple Kitchen, a restaurant and grocery store that provides healthy food options, caters to Paleo and Keto diets and learned how they managed not only to survive but thrive in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.
The staff is extra busy this week, as they are keeping the Roncesvalles location open and celebrating the grand opening of their new franchise at Oakville. Being a regular at Simple Kitchen and fan, kindly share how did you get started?
I was a teacher for 18 years and interested in health and fitness. With a kinesiology degree, and I was up to speed on the latest information and stumbled on Paleo. There was a restaurant in New York City called Hu Kitchen that I frequently visited and realized that nothing like that existed in Toronto. There were lots of vegan options, but that niche had not been filled. So I used to sit in my car and keep scribbling different menu ideas.
I continually dreamt about menu options and towards the end of my teaching career, I had received my real estate license. I was part-time teaching and part-time realtor flipping houses. Over time, I came across 73 Roncesvalles that was up for lease and booked myself an appointment. I walked in and without visiting a second site, decided to put down a deposit and I think, turned into Toronto’s first paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, refined- sugar-free restaurant.
My husband added, “You better find somebody crazy enough to do this with you.” I had a partner who used to work in real estate, Joe Meireis. He was a carpenter by trade and a contractor who could do everything. I asked if he would be interested in joining hands. He said yes and start renovating the property. I figured out the menu, and I guess that’s how it all started.
What was it like to start a niche restaurant?
We were so into it at that point; we had to keep pushing forward, even though we thought it was getting to be a bit difficult. There were so many nuances to the business that neither one of us knew. But slowly and surely, we overcame all of them. We got the lease in January, and we didn’t open until August.
So it took us that amount of time to build the property up, get the menu and opened the doors in mid-August. And then, once we opened it, we realized that Keto was just as popular, if not more than, Paleo. So we started adding some vegan options to broaden our base. Later we included retail grocery products.
Fantastic, you mentioned you were figuring out menu items and things like that. Did you have a cooking background or a passion for cooking?
When we started, I thought there are two different types of people who would be doing Paleo. One group that need to do this for their health and feel good — perhaps they have a gluten intolerance or dairy intolerance, or something like that. And then you’ve got a whole other group of people like myself, that don’t have any of those intolerances but want to have a better life, more longevity.
And for me, I believe that other foods probably cause inflammation, which leads to long-term illnesses and gut imbalances. So I was on that side of it, while other people are forced into that way of eating. I didn’t have a cooking background, but I love to bake. I found recipes and changed them by removing the dairy and gluten.
Honestly, we both went in pretty green. My partner, Joe, is an excellent carpenter, but he’s also an excellent cook. He’s not trained or anything; he’s just known as the cook in their family. We did hire a chef at the beginning, but things didn’t work out, so Joe took over. And we haven’t looked back since.
It’s interesting that neither you nor Joe are trained chefs, but that you had a shared personal interest, and you’ve been able to create a great menu that has garnered you a loyal customer base, like me. You’re still open. So who are your typical clients? Are they local neighborhood clients, or are people coming from all parts of the city?
I was worried about being too niche and that I wasn’t going to appeal to everybody. There’s a group of people seeking [gluten-free] food, but it’s a small group of people. My plan was let’s cater to all of them. Let’s make sure we let our customers know that we know what we’re doing and what gluten does to the body.
We are aware how to remove dairy and still make food taste good. You don’t need to know anything about why it doesn’t have gluten. You can just come and get a great meal and not care about anything beyond that.
We have customers who found out about us coming from Oakville or outside the GTA. We even have few clients from Muskoka, who every two weeks like clockwork get their fill of products. We have a pretty broad base that drives in, especially right now as people need a place to go. We have some pretty regular delivery customers from Hamilton and Woodbridge as well.
Of course, social media has helped us grow and locals, our neighborhood people to be much thankful for. Maybe they’re just coming in for good coffee. Beyond that, you’ve got people that are driving in because we have products that are hard to find and deliver across Canada now.
Speaking of social media, I noticed you have partnered with different celebrities and well-known people in the health food industry. That’s something I’d be curious about as well.
I was at a wedding in L.A. for a friend of mine, her daughter, and I got a direct message from a Toronto Maple Leafs player by the name of Connor Carrick, whom I didn’t know, but he sent me a direct message and just said, “Hey, I play for the Leafs, and I live in Chicago. You guys don’t have a lot of the stuff here in Toronto that I can get there, but I just looked at your menu, and it looked so great.” It was sort of out of the blue. And we collaborated on a drink called Carrick’s Fuel, and he and his wife came in regularly.
He put us on the spot during intermission for one of the Maple Leafs games that brought us many new followers. We thought, that’s a cool menu item, who else can we get to do something like that? So I guess from there, I got Joanne McCarthy, a local nutritionist who’s well-known. I reached out to several social influencers, and we supported their foundations with money coming in. Every month we did a different person, and those items stuck on the menu. And then I was able to gain new followers and a whole bunch of new customers through them. Very cool. Funny that it just came spontaneously, and then it just evolved.
It’s incredible how it evolved organically, and then it attracted different people; even today, I got an email from somebody saying would you be willing to collaborate with me? But it ran its course, and it did its thing because something can be overkill. But then John Tarvaris came in one day, the Maple Leafs captain, and one of my girls recognized him. I knew of him, but I didn’t know what he looked like in person.
One of my girls is a hockey player, so she recognized him. So I spoke with him, and he said, you know, I just got traded to the Leafs. So he’s been a very regular customer and his wife, and we’ve delivered to him, so we have that special on the menu. So he’s been an enormous support. He doesn’t have social media, so he’s never posted about it himself, but been exceptional about taking pictures and letting us post about the fact that he is a regular and visits two or three times a week pretty consistently.
Definitely! You mentioned earlier that although it does cater to a specific diet, it doesn’t matter because it tastes good. Tell me a bit more about your business and how each phase of covid impacted your business.
It was mid-March, and everybody was starting to shut down. We were okay to stay open because we could do takeout, and we were going to go with that model by getting rid of the seating. Then one of my employees came to me and said I don’t feel very well. That just triggered me to think I don’t know how I’m supposed to handle this. So I just made the decision that night to close indefinitely. We were worried about employees’ monthly paycheck, but thanks to CERB, all was sorted.
We closed for exactly a month, and I didn’t do a lot; I worked on our website to start updating our online products. After a complete shutdown month, we opened to curbside pickup and delivery. My son and husband volunteered for deliveries. We had around 20 orders per day. Later we opened for walk-ins and continued our pickup and delivery.
I don’t want to say that there was anything good about it, but it did challenge me to find ways to come out the other side because bills were piling up, and we didn’t want to close. When we opened, our customers were excited to get out and visit us. We kept all precautions in place like plexiglass, wearing masks, washing hands all the time.
So how many employees did you have, and did you have to scale back? And how did you feel about working during the pandemic?
We had about 11, and the government has been good with all the subsidies. I have a good accountant, and he’s kept me up to date. I was able to hire them back because the government is subsidizing their wages. I haven’t had to let anybody go. Anybody who wanted to work is working. I tended to think, how do we improve people’s health so that they can fight it? I believe very strongly in health and immunity.
I don’t believe in the fear part of it. The media does a great job of trying to make us all fearful. And there have been moments, but I stopped listening to the news and focused on my business and my health, making sure I was doing the things I encourage through the company, to eat correctly and drink your water and get your sleep and try to reduce your stress and move every single day.
My staff believes in the same ideologies as young and healthy individuals interested in health and nutrition. Anxiety, stress, and fear are so much more important than people think and way more detrimental to your health than anything else. I do have an educated opinion because I’ve been in this space for a long time.
So you kind of went over how you survived and adapted during Covid, but it seems like you’ve pivoted surprisingly with the fact that you are growing. You recently announced that you’d launched a new location in the middle of the pandemic. So can you tell me about the new place and where that came about? You mentioned it was a franchise.
So [the owner] ‘s been a friend of mine for many years. When I was doing real estate, he was buying condos and flipping them. So he had that same sort of up for a risk mentality, which many people don’t have. And then he had some health issues and had gone gluten-free and dairy-free himself. He was more interested in the business than the average person. And so he called me up and said, “I think I’m ready to make a move.”
And, you know, it’s one of those things where he was able to take advantage of the situation. He found a location that would never have been available in downtown Oakville, right on the strip of Lakeshore. It was reasonable because they were desperate to get somebody in there. My son, my partner, and Joe did all the work because, as I said, he’s a carpenter and made it look pretty much on brand. It looks like ours, a little nicer, a little cleaner, a little brand new.
On a lighter note, I’ve asked thrice to switch locations with me, but he says no. It took two months to renovate the place, and we just opened on last Saturday. It took us seven months to open ours, so we’ve learned over time. He was swamped, especially for being in lockdown. Ten people were waiting for their orders on the opening night, and there was a bit of a line up outside, but that’s first weekend’s excitement.
It’s incredible, and I guess now you have a structure in place where you want to move forward with the franchising. What will help your business flourish, whether franchising or in general with what you’re doing at your location? What is going to help you guys continue and even grow, do you think?
I mean, this franchise allowed me to go through the process. I documented everything in a package so that it’s easy to hand over if this happens again. We got the licensing agreement through a lawyer. So now that’s done, and it’s suitable for anywhere in the world. I threw a feeler out there on Instagram and had 15 people contact me. It is enticing to most people at the beginning, so I sent them [the package].
It’s a pretty clear cut thing. It costs fifty thousand dollars to buy the franchise, and we’ll get it all renovated, which is a nice bonus. They’d pay Joe to do the work, but at least he knows everything. And it’s a 4% royalty on top of that. We’ll give you a break for about the first six months to get you going. It’s hands-on from our end.
So I’ve got about three people starting the process of looking for locations. I want to sell our site to somebody else and act as an administrator, possibly get a kitchen-slash-office somewhere and run the business. We still make our granola and dough for the bakery, so we’re making all that for [the franchisee] and shipping it to him. But we’ll evolve with that as well. We have a ton of great ideas for different soups and maybe some prepared foods.
Amazing. Well, it’s just awe-inspiring to see that during the pandemic, you guys have been not only able to survive but thrive. So that’s just so great to hear. Last question, unless you have anything else you’d like to share, but do you have any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs or new startups?
I wasn’t aware of the term “impostor syndrome” until lately. I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur by trade, although I am now. I’m learning as I go. And I do what makes sense to me. You can work hard and have nothing to show for it whatsoever. When I was a teacher, whether you’re right or not, they dump a bunch of money in your account every two weeks. And that’s not the case with being an entrepreneur.
I guess my advice is you cannot be faint at heart, it’s not going to go your way sometimes, that’s for sure. And I think that’s the best that I can say to people. It’s not for everybody. You can take off with it and make a ton of money on a business over time, but you’re not going to get paid by the hour to work on it. It has to be your baby. I often don’t even know what day of the week it is. It’s a scary thing as your time goes by much faster, to be honest. But I love what I’m doing even in the most challenging times.
Awesome. Well, I think that sums up the passion it takes to be an entrepreneur, and you seem to be doing a great job. Thanks, and I look forward to seeing how you continue to grow and continue to navigate challenges successfully.
For more information kindly visit:
Location: The Simple Kitchen, 73 Roncesvalles Ave, Toronto, Ontario M6R2K6, CA