Mark McEwan

By Jessica Lee

Mark McEwan moves like a fish in water at his high-end grocery store in North York. He is the boss after all. He laughs with his staff, adjusts products and greets customers with a sincere smile.

Dressed in a pressed navy blue suit with a pale blue dress shirt underneath, he looks every bit the part of a proud owner.

After over 35 years in the food industry, McEwan has opened four restaurants, a grocery store and two catering companies. He has also published two books, stars in two television shows and launched an eco-friendly pots and pans line.

The road to this point, however, has not been easy.

He first decided to become a chef in 1976, after finishing high school.

“Actually, a lot of people thought I was sort of crazy to be going into the business,” he says. “They had no understanding of food. You tell people that you’re going to be a chef today and they go ‘oh that’s great’. Back in my day, they looked at you like you’d bumped your head.”

Back then, the Food Channel did not exists, nor did the “media blitz” revolving food and restaurants.

“It was a very different playing field,” McEwan says.

He took an apprenticeship in the kitchen at Sutton Place, an upscale hotel in downtown Toronto, and eventually became the executive hotel chef as his career progressed.

“That was my first big job. And then from there, I segwayed into restaurants,” he says.

In 1985, he bought Pronto restaurant with two other business partners.

“After doing the hotel for two years, I was bored already,” he says. “I looked around and thought ‘I don’t want to be here my whole life. I don’t want to be at a food and beverage meeting every Thursday and listening to the same people talk about why they can’t things done.”

McEwan was passionate about his new restaurant venture and did what he had to do to make ends meet.

“I sold my car, I took our wedding money— I didn’t tell my wife this— I took all the money for the wedding and bought a share for the restaurant.

“I went from [earning] $65,000 a year [at the hotel] to a $32,000 salary.”

At the time, Pronto was already a successful restaurant. McEwan and his team kept the pot bubbling and in 1990, opened a new restaurant, North 44. It was not easy.

“When you go to the bank and you want to open up a business, you sort of sell your soul,” says McEwan.

McEwan and his partners split shortly after opening North 44. His partners ended up with Pronto and McEwan got North 44.

Enter the recession.

With $2 million in debt and a restaurant to run, McEwan continued to work in North 44 and managed to establish a regular clientele. Finally, in 2002, he was ready to embrace another challenge. He opened his second restaurant, Bymark, in the financial district, which has gone on to become just as successful as North 44.

“Success is a curvy road. You have to work it, work it, work it all the time. You have to find an idea, and if it doesn’t work, you have to figure it out and be tenacious about it,” McEwan says.

Though he has never taken any business courses, he has a natural talent for it. As a young entrepreneur, the changing of weather meant McEwan mowed lawns, raked leaves and shoveled driveways.

“The moment I was old enough to get a job, I got a job. I think it’s natural that people sort of fall into [business],” states McEwan.

McEwan knows that guests at his restaurant like to feel special, and makes time to chat and meet with them. He knows what he wants and expects his employees to deliver it. He tries to visit all of his restaurants every day to oversee the staff and keep a watch for new needs that may present themselves.

Tim Salmon, general manager at One Restaurant in Yorkville, one of McEwan’s eateries, describes him as “very on the ball.”

McEwan is up-to-date on the latest trends but also uses good old-fashioned logic to make his decisions. Deciding to go with the more costly paper bags to be eco-friendly at his grocery store as opposed to the cheaper plastic bags shows how attuned he is to the green progression that is occurring in the business industry.

“He’s a very astute businessman,” says Salmon, who has been an employee of McEwan’s for 17 years. “He’s very smart. He knows exactly what figures need to go… he knows the numbers.”

Salmon’s boss also knows that quality control in a restaurant is extremely important.

“You don’t ever get that moment to open again,” McEwan says of restaurants.

McEwan’s expectations are exemplified in his TV series, The Heat with Mark McEwan. In one episode where the company was catering a large event, despite doubts from his staff, McEwan outlined exactly what they could do in the timeframe and made it clear in a stern manner what he expected them to accomplish.

“He’s a perfectionist, first and foremost, and he’s very simple and fair but at the same time he demands a lot,” Sash Simpson, executive chef at North 44 and a long-time employee of McEwan’s, says.

When working with new employees, McEwan relies on his instinct, which he says are generally right. Employees, he says, are essentially the most difficult equation of the business to control.

“I don’t even believe in the ‘three strikes you’re out’ rule,” McEwan remarks, “I believe certain things, one strike and you’re two thirds out the door. Even a hint of it again, you’re gone. Because I know [the character] resides in you and I don’t want to have to deal with people like that.”

He says that the failure rate of new employees in a new business is relatively high. When he was opening one of his restaurants, the general manager was fired within two weeks for failing to meet standards.

“You never know until boots are on the ground and you start adding pressure to the bottle what happens to a person. Then you see the true character of a person come out. And until they’re tested, you don’t know,” McEwan says. His employees agree.

“He expects his team to work as hard as he does. If he thinks you’re not working hard and not doing what you should be doing, he’s got no time for you,” Salmon says.

Simpson is grateful for the position McEwan gave him and for everything he taught him in the kitchen.

“For me to take over and run [North 44] for him was a blessing,” Simpson says. “What he showed me is being really good at what you do, and that is what he is.”

“Pretty much everything he touches turns to gold.” Salmon adds.

Not one for superficial talk or time wasting, McEwan established an empire at age 54 simply due to focus and hard work. Where other people like to talk endlessly over plans but never set their plans to action, McEwan is the kind of person who gets things done. He sets his mind to his goals, makes plans, assigns projects to the staff best suited for the job and waits for it all to come to fruition.

“I don’t have a lot of patience for unnecessary meetings and endless structure and paperwork. I like to be hands-on. I like to see things come about and I think by me controlling it, I can be very spontaneous in that way- create a lot of change and a lot of action in a short period of time.”

“He’s very strong-minded,” Salmon says. “He’s not wishy-washy at all.”

McEwan’s strong vision of what he wants and extensive expertise in the field—such as knowing what diners want, what would look good in his grocery store— have so far brought success. Every detail, down to the employee’s uniforms, were meticulously planned and thought over.

McEwan believes his unrelenting personality comes from being a middle child in a large family. He emphasizes that everything he has, he had to work hard for.

“I think [being a middle child] is a benefit. I think when you’re young and you get too much attention for the wrong reasons, I don’t think it’s good for character.”

Out of all his projects, McEwan felt that the most difficult one was opening the grocery store.

“I think it was probably the most satisfying [to complete] because it was probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’d talked about a store for ten years. Probably a good ten years,” says McEwan.

“To sit across the street on the park bench and actually see the store operating was quite a thrill,” he remarks.

Having just released a new cookbook on Italian food last month and opened an Italian restaurant (Fabbrica) last year, there is no telling what he is up to next. There are book signings to be done, foods to be taste-tested, events to cater, and decisions to be made.

“I like what I’m doing at 54 and I think that’s a good place to be, so I’m a happy guy,” he says.

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