Urban Dining Group
Toronto’s dining landscape is a large and varied selection reflective of the diversity of its residents. The food and beverage is of great importance to the city which stands up to the best culinary cities in the world. It certainly has one of the biggest industries in North America, employing over 60,000 people and bringing in annual sales of approximately $17 billion in 2012 (according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food).
The continuum of food options range from a street vendor to the largest corporate conglomeration. Fitting comfortably in the middle is Urban Dining Group: Toronto’s First Family of Dining. Urban Dining Group is one of Toronto’s most established dining companies in the city, operating unique hospitality brands for 25 years, of which it is highly like the reader has patronized. But what makes Urban Dining Group unique is that is a restaurant group, but a family business first.
In fact, Urban Dining Group started out as an independent restaurant at Young and Lawrence called Gabby’s. Many people may not know that the original Gabby’s was a family-owned and operated entity. Opened in March, 1989, Grant and Judi Warfield were the owner operators of the local eatery, which specialized in beer and chicken wings. Son Todd Sherman was an integral part of the genesis of Gabby’s, investing into the business with his earnings, quickly becoming a 50/50 partner. Grant Warfield looked after the store level operations and acted as CFO, while Sherman’s talent at growth and acquisition blossomed. It is a partnership that has been formalized under the umbrella of The Urban Dining Group, which has anchored the team through 25 years of expansion and service.
The original Gabby’s located at Young and Lawrence has not changed much since its opening, and its customers – now in their 3rd and 4th generation – like it that way. The concept was to create a cozy environment that was conducive to great conversations with friends and family, serving quality, freshly cooked meals alongside an impressive draft beer and spirits selections. While the original location stays the same, new Gabby’s locations have evolved with its customers’ tastes.
New locations – 15 now in total, serving over 35,000 customers a week – have an updated look with a softer, cleaner, more contemporary casual dining look featuring generous wood booths, the walls offer rich wood finishes, natural stone and exposed brick and refined menu, beer and spirit selections. The ambition remains to be Toronto’s best main stream casual dining experience with an integrated sports bar area that caters to the community and local businesses has never wavered.
Gabby’s has remained as popular now as when it began, with overall store sales up the past five years in a row. With prices of everything in the food and beverage industry—from ketchup to alumni foil to the price per pound of meat—increasing, Gabby’s is dedicated to maintaining its value proposition to customers. “The segment is in constant need of adjusting,” says Sherman. “There is beginning to be a gap in the middle segment of our industry. There is a fine line in our industry of understanding the value to customers and what they are willing to pay within your segment and what you can provide them as far as quality.
“Our goal in 2014 is working with an outside consultant chef to redefine a number of our food items, to find that position of best quality for appropriate value for the brand, while remaining in the mainstream causal space, and while most of our downtown Toronto sites are corporate owned we still see great opportunity for more locations outside the GTA with our franchise opportunities,” says Sherman, President of Urban Dining Group.
With the success of Gabby’s, Urban Dining Group has top pick of new restaurant spaces as they open in the city, some of which would be exciting, though not a fit for Gabby’s. When the opportunity arose to acquire the 20-year-old Italian eatery and martini bar Hey Lucy, the Urban Dining Group welcomed the opportunity to apply its experience in a new market segment.
The Hey Lucy’s concept is built around customer service. The Authentic wood burning oven, hand stretched pizza, fresh pasta, great patio, casual pizzeria and bar, and music make it a great weekend brunch or night out option. Hey Lucy on 295 King Street West in the theatre district was an ideal location says Sherman, as it as three doors down from a Gabby’s. “We would rather have another brand next door than a competitor,” he smiles. “We decided to acquire the brand because we understood what the brand was about.” With some “tweaking” to the operation, within 36 months, Hey Lucy had doubled its same store sales and continued to open two additional locations (in the heart of the Annex and Cabbage town, respectively). “We took the principles that we run with at Gabby’s—being prudent to financial terms, ensuring that costs and labor and service times meet certain standards—and brought that to Hey Lucy. We repositioned the look at feel of the menu and gave it an internal facelift. In year two, we saw a 50 per cent increase. In year three, we doubled sales.”
Buoyed by the success of expansion, the Urban Dining Group proved their strength in food and beverage sector. “What it told us was the principles that we had learned over 20-plus years were applicable to really any type of restaurant.”
From there, the Urban Dining Group moved to Hush. “We developed Hush for two reasons. One is we love the entertainment district; we have been there a long time and understand it,” says Sherman. “We felt there was a gap in a particular segment of restaurant being offered on that strip.”
With Hush, the Urban Dining Group enters the upscale-casual, bar and lounge space. Hush is an “it spot” located across the street from the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a hive of activity during the Toronto International Film Festival. Hush draws celebrities and the who’s who with its clean modern décor in a sleek, urban restaurant setting with freshly made cuisine, and great service.
AMSTERDAM BrewHouse “on the Lake.”
Voted one of the Top 10 Best New Toronto Patios by Toronto Life, The Amersterdam Brewery’s “giant three-patio extravaganza” is the perfect place to enjoy the lake breeze and find your favourite Amsterdam beer.
The relationship between Amsterdam Brewery and the Urban Dining Group has been long rooted. As a key beer supplier to the restaurant group they seemed like a natural fit. “Jeff (Amsterdam Brewery CEO) and our company spent the better part of two years planning and looking for a great location,” says Sherman. Urban Dining Group was selected by Amsterdam Brewery to operational manage the mammoth waterfront facility with its 850 seats.
It was a project that required strong hospitality background. The team thought they would do a soft opening in July, 2013, and see how it went. Unfortunately for them, it’s hard to keep a 14,000 square foot restaurant and brewery on the lake a secret for long, and they spend their inaugural summer “just trying to keep up.”
“There were many days a week that we would service over 3,000 guests, with no marketing and the roads closed all around us,” says Sherman. “It was rather surprising to see line ups of over two hours at many point through the week. With 140+ staff including two-full time event planners that were hired to manage corporate and private events alone, this year (2014) will be a very different proposition, we are prepared and bring a wealth of experience to the table to a site we truly enjoy. Working with one of the country’s best brewers, Iain McOustra (the head brewer as Amsterdam), has been great, we are very lucky to have such a brewing talent on board.”
All of the Urban Dining Group brands are special, but the team is especially excited about its latest partnership with international coffee brand Lavazza. Despite being available in 90 countries in the world, pouring over 17 billion cups of coffee a year, Lavazza Espression (there global café division) had no Canadian presence until now.
The Lavazza company is 119-years old. Alberto Lavazza, the current CEO, is the 4th generation Lavazza family member to manage the company. Immediately, the Lavazza team were drawn to the Urban Dining Group. After all, both teams are equipped with talented men and women with proven business acumen. But beyond that, both teams are founded in family, still have discussions around the family dinner table, and whose commitment to their brands are core family values.
“Again, we kept getting offered sights and real estate and kept finding these great little 1,500 sq foot pieces, in really great areas, but didn’t have a brand to put in them,” says Sherman. “With Lavazza, we already have amazing locations, such as in the King Edward Hotel, the Sick Kids Research Tower, Queen’s Quay, etc.”
There are many great franchisee opportunities with this brand, Sherman goes on to say. “It’s rare to be able to buy a piece of history like this that is committed to selling only the best made in house products. We are very proud of this brand.”
The Lavazza company will compete on a level with Starbucks, and is projected to perform exceptionally. Keep in mind, in Italy, Lavazza owns an incredible 48 per cent of the market share. The Urban Dining Group holds the Canadian exclusive license to the “Lavazza Espression” brand and are currently looking for territory license agreements across Canada.
Reflecting on how far The Urban Dining Group has come, Sherman says it has been incredibly challenging and fulfilling to be able to be part of so many great and diverse brands. Sherman is also very proud of his involvement in the Ontario Restaurant Association and the Toronto Regional Board of Directors ( Sherman recently stepped down after a long tenure as Vice Chair). “The involvement with government relations there and how I have personally seen policies being changed and altered for the good in trying to help restaurants has been more than gratifying. My family has worked very hard in an industry that is plagued with challenges, our hard work has provided us with many great opportunities and many great friendship. A lot of has come of it. It’s been a wonderful 25 years.”