and Hospitality, June 2006
Why Oliver Bonacini Group is a master of staff culture
"It almost felt like summer camp, it was so exciting to be there,"
says a beaming Iris Lam about the pre-opening preparations at
Oliver Bonacini Café Grill at Blue Mountain near Collingwood,
Ont. Lam earned a Top 30 Under 30 nod from the Ontario Hostelry
Institute in 2005, for her work in getting the new restaurant
up and running last fall. And she's still a co-op student from
the University of Guelph's B.Comm program, where she'll be heading
back to finish her degree in September. The enthusiastic Lam is
pleased she landed her placement with a company that knows how
to spot and develop talent.
Toronto-based Oliver Bonacini Group runs six high-end restaurants
including Auberge du Pommier in York Mills, which opened in 1987,
and downtown restaurants Jump, Canoe and Biff's. The more casual
Oliver Bonacini Café Grill has a branch in North Toronto and a
new one in Collingwood. "Blue," as staff call it (after the Village
at Blue Mountain resort), opened late last year and posed an additional
challenge: not only did Oliver Bonacini have to prepare a new
150-seat restaurant, it also had to collaborate with Intrawest
Resorts, which runs the property, and the 228-room Westin Trillium
House. Blue is also the hotel's restaurant - which makes it the
first and only OB eatery to serve breakfast, and it provides in-room
dining and banqueting services as well. Lam took charge of in-room
dining and aided the team of about 30 to prep for its big day.
With annual sales of $35 million and more than 350 staff, Oliver
Bonacini is not a small operation. And although it caters to an
upscale crowd - and has the check averages to prove it - the group's
training and development strategies are a model for the industry.
Lam joined last summer, starting at Jump. "It was a culture shock
to suddenly find myself in a classy, upbeat, exciting place in
downtown Toronto. Quite a change from wearing sweatpants at Guelph,"
she laughs. Her habitual smile faltered in the initial days, but
soon came back. "Everyone was so friendly and unpretentious,"
she says. Lam soon learned to appreciate the incredible care taken
over every detail at all OB restaurants.
"Attention to detail works because our restaurants are busy,"
says co-owner Peter Oliver. "People see we get results." How much
detail? Well, for instance, every day managers "string" the tables
and chairs to ensure every stick of furniture is aligned. Staff
must polish all glasses and cutlery, and tables must be set just
so. This was a shock for Blue's laid-back staff in Collingwood.
Slick-suited Bruce McAdams, the chain's operations manager, fielded
a few complaints. "We heard, 'Oh my God I can't believe they have
100 points of service," he says. "And then we actually role-played
them all. The new staff was incredibly impressed - and nervous.
It's not what they were expecting."
Peter Oliver makes a point of meeting every new staff member
and providing orientation, where he outlines the company's vision.
"We have a set of values I want to get across to all staff. An
example of one of our goals is that by November 30, 2008, we want
to be the best-managed restaurant company in the world," he says.
It's a lofty goal indeed, but not at all unreasonable, once you've
learned a little more about the company.
McAdams joined Jump in 1997 and was put in charge of training.
"My first few years were taken up with the technical side of service
- we looked at every detail. From managing the inventory to ensure
no shortages of cutlery and stemware, to staff duties, to customer-service
expectations, and even what level the window blinds should be
at," says McAdams, who then prepared fastidious manuals. He uses
the metaphor of putting together a chest of drawers from Ikea.
"You could do it without a manual, but with one, you'll do it
in a tenth of the time with a tenth of the headache." (The operations
manual at Blue is around 200 pages thick.)
Caroline Niklas-Gordon is a stylish, smart hostess at Canoe in
Toronto and has worked there for half a decade. She appreciates
the flexibility of her shifts, which allow her to teach, choreograph
and dance ballet. She'll be performing at the St. John's Day celebrations
in Newfoundland this month, taking 10 days off - with Canoe's
blessing. She likes how smoothly everything runs at Canoe and
says the training keeps everyone in sync. It's fluid, well-instilled
training, that over time "becomes second nature, which you can
impart to new staff," she says. "The procedures seem natural rather
than a chore."
But training systems and manuals are only half the story. Good
attitude and teamwork are also vital. At the OB Group, this is
developed through "emotional training." That doesn't mean staff
bawl to an on-site therapist, it means they learn how best to
deal with both customers and colleagues. Don't tell, show "We
look at how staff and customers interact," says McAdams, "from
friendliness to body language to the way we offer food and drinks.
One of the waiters at Auberge du Pommier, a budding filmmaker,
produced a video of the waiters working a lunch shift on the patio
at Jump," he says. "[Culled] from more than two hours of footage,
he made a slick two-minute clip showing a variety of situations.
It's more instructive to show staff what works and doesn't, than
just telling them." And apparently staff are happy with this sort
of training - some staff have spent 15 years with the company.
Much of the emotional training emphasizes being polite, friendly
and helpful. After all, the restaurant business is not just about
serving good food and drinks. "With emotional training, we show
how simple changes in attitude and approach can make things run
smoother," notes McAdams. There are practical tips on how to "read"
a table as well. For example, if guests stop to watch the server
open the wine, this is a cue that they want to engage. But if
they just continue their conversation, the server should open
the wine and silently pour.
At Blue, successful inductees were sent back to school, with
nearly two weeks of classes. "The classroom training was well
received," says manager Andrea Sire, who came from the Café Grill
in North Toronto and loves small-town life in Collingwood. "Unfortunately
when we started, the restaurant wasn't functional, so we had to
make do with plates with pictures of food on them. And because
we didn't have our liquor licence yet, we were not allowed to
serve wine, so we got hold of bottles which were fully corked
and sealed, but filled with water." Niagara winery Cave Spring
agreed to bottle water for OB, a big buyer of its wines. New staff
practiced, role-played, made mistakes, learned, and had a great
But classroom learning alone was not enough to meet company standards,
so Blue held six "dry runs," in which friends, family, and staff
from the hotel and other local restaurants were invited to enjoy
a free meal prepped by executive chef Mark Marchment, who joined
Blue from the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. "There were just
minor glitches by the last one," says Sire. "The guests loved
it and were happy to fill in the comment cards afterwards." One
of the biggest surprises for Sire was how much they loved the
food. "We take it for granted, I guess. We were more worried about
the service, but they were really impressed." Staff at Blue are
also taken on day trips to visit other OB restaurants in the city
to get a feel for the chain. Any staff member can sign up for
once the monthly trips. They go to the city early in the morning
and have coffee in one restaurant, lunch in another, dessert in
another, and really get to know the Group and what it offers.
"They love it. It's a great, fun day for them," says Sire.
Ready, set, hire
So how did they find the staff for Blue? In conjunction with Westin,
Oliver Bonacini set up several job fairs at the nearby Toronto
Ski Club. There were menus, wines and posters explaining the chain.
Scott Bellhouse was the lead manager for Oliver Bonacini and he'd
hoped for 300 candidates on the first one. "We got 70," says Bruce
McAdams, shaking his head. "The labour market is different there,
it's very small. In Toronto we're used to choosing between five
and 10 candidates. There, we could choose between two or three
candidates for each job." Several more job fairs were held and
more than 100 people were interviewed to find the 31 people hired.
Then there was the culture gap. Oliver says "for many people
in Collingwood, the old union mentality from the shipbuilding
era combined with the ski/fun attitude to life means work is often
viewed as a necessary evil. And with the current boom in the area,
people think, 'If I don't like this, I'll just go somewhere else.'
It's a bit of a 'Take this job and shove it' mentality," he says.
He continues, "In Toronto, people are more serious and you get
high levels of food and wine knowledge. We were a little surprised
at the beginning, but I'm pleased that many of the people who
started with us are still there and have turned out to be just
as tenacious, if not more so, than our employees in Toronto."
Meanwhile, back in the big smoke, training continues apace.
Take me to the vineyard
With the group uncorking about $8 million worth of wine every
year, wine training is taken seriously. There are coach trips
to Niagara to visit wineries a couple of times a year, which pleases
Canoe's sommelier, the affable Rueben Elmer, who just had a baby
son and benefited from paternity leave. "These trips really help
staff learn about wine," he says. "I also visit different wine
regions at least twice a year, and that's the fun part," continues
Elmer, who most recently tasted wine in Portugal. The visits are
sponsored by either the company or by the region's consulates
and wineries. "I organize all of the information and pass it down
to the rest of the staff," he says. "We usually bring wines back
and try them with the staff. It's really great for them. It's
first-hand knowledge rather than book knowledge."
For years staff enrolled in programs like the Wine and Spirits
Education Trust of London in the U.K., which offers three modules
at George Brown College: Intermediate, Advanced and Diploma. To
make life easier, McAdams arranged for classes to be held at the
group's restaurants. Trained sommeliers give the lessons and the
qualification earned is the same as if staff had gone to George
Brown College or the WSET headquarters in England. These classes
are available at Blue as well. In addition to the regular tours
to Niagara wineries for all staff, managers, sommeliers and waiters
who've shown interest in wine can sign up for four-day jaunts
to wineries abroad, in places such as California. But even these
trips are not restricted to senior employees and managers. "In
July, three servers will be going to Pinot Camp in Oregon," says
Elmer. "You have to dig around, but these sponsored visits are
available to restaurateurs."
Most recently, Bruce McAdams brought in one of Ontario's top
sommeliers, Peter Bodnar-Rod, to present a wine seminar to staff.
Bodnar-Rod's seminar, The Soul of Wine, was informal and staff
enjoyed it. "Peter doesn't work in a restaurant, so he came in
with a fresh voice," says Elmer. "Everyone had to offer their
favourite stories about wine, from drinking a $7 bottle on the
beach to savouring a ridiculously expensive bottle. It got everyone
to appreciate when they're serving wine, it's not just a bottle,
it's a memory. [Our customers] come for that type of experience."
If you can't stand the heat…
Kitchen staff get perhaps the most comprehensive training of all
at Oliver Bonacini. Take a look at a sample training program:
A co-op student from George Brown College starts at an entry-level
garde-manger position at one OB restaurant. There are about half
a dozen different positions within the kitchen, and he or she
will usually work two or three of them (as a saucier or turnot,
for instance) and keep at if for a little over a year. They're
not ready to become a chef yet but they've already learned the
style of food, so they're moved to another restaurant in the chain.
They can work in those same positions again, but with a different
style of cuisine, and then they're ready to move up. Oliver Bonacini
is big enough to provide all-round training, including French,
Italian, North American, modern and classical. They also offer
ServeSafe, a program designed to give all kitchen staff training
on health and safety in the kitchen, especially regarding safe
food-handling and storage practices.
Hot restaurants come and go and temperamental chefs go with them,
but Oliver says success is never a happy coincidence. "In our
industry, the most organized and structured places are at the
lower end - fast food - so there is a misconception that if you
are too organized and rigid, you can't be creative. But that's
just wrong." At Oliver Bonacini, the dogged attention to detail
in both the kitchen and the front of the house sets a baseline
that makes everything work. And when talented staff are ready
to take that extra step, which they invariably do, that's when
the magic happens.
Luxe Lunching at Canoe
The elevator dings on the 54th Floor of the Mies Van Der Rohe-designed
skyscraper at King and Bay Streets, ground zero of corporate Canada,
and there's a splendid view. TD Bank's facilities are on one side
and Canoe is on the other. The entrance is a corridor that feels
a bit like a catwalk, but the hostess - Caroline Nicklas-Gordon
- is smiling, so you can relax. The decor is subdued, earth-toned
and modern. Nicholas-Gordon escorts you to your table which, if
you're lucky, will be by the window. On a clear day, the view
is stunning. Toronto restaurant critic Joanne Kates says "There
is no better place to lunch in town." Opt for one of the many
Niagara wines on Canoe's list and see where it came from just
by looking south.But better than the view is the service. The
waiter is friendly and relaxed, greets you and takes your drink
order quickly. Even though captains of corporate Canada dine there,
Canoe's uniforms are casual. "Management wears suits," says operations
manager Bruce McAdams, "but by having the wait staff dress casually,
we signal that this is not an uptight, stuffy place. It's welcoming."
Soon, a smiling bread waiter deposits a basket, the breads (delicious,
incidentally) can include walnut bread from Fred's Breads, and
selections from Thuet, a hot resto-cum-bakery. Thuet's breads
also have no eggs, flour or yeast (!) and are superb. A typical
tapanade would be pureed chickpeas, garlic, olive oil and lemon
juice. Simple and delicious. After a suitable pause, the waiter
returns to describe the specials and take the order.You feel like
he's a friend looking out for your best interests: Canoe's "emotional
training" at work. Wait staff are up to speed on the food and
wine, but they're also trained to put customers at ease. Through
body language they can hit the right note with different diners
- some want more chat and interaction, others just want the goods.
The real star of the show at Canoe is the food. Chef de Cuisine
Tom Brodi and executive chef Anthony Walsh consistently deliver
innovative and modern Canadian cuisine. And with starters like
pan-seared La Ferme foie gras hazelnut muffin, mulled prunes and
thyme and mains such as butterflied Atlantic salmon filet, caramelized
fennel, winter radish and caviars, you know you're in for a treat.
(Menus change monthly.) Throughout the meal, water and wine glasses
are re-filled, and crumbs are swept before dessert. Try turning
down baked hazelnut ricotta crêpe with balsamic summer berries,
basil and C'est Bon goat cheese ice cream. And apart from special
occasions like the first sitting of New Year's Eve dinner, guests
can linger as long as they like. No wonder Canoe is still on top
after a decade, with loyal customers attached to "their" tables,
and why you can't expect to just show up for lunch unannounced:
the place is usually booked solid.
Smile, even though they order tap water
Up-selling seems like a great idea: bigger tips for the server
and bigger sales for the restaurant. At the Oliver Bonacini Group,
waiters are free to suggest a dish or wine, but they never make
customers feel obliged to spend more money. For instance, at Canoe
servers offer ice water or mineral water. Everybody knows ice
water is code for tap, but it sounds good, tastes good, doesn't
cost anything, and nobody's embarrassed. And most importantly,
it keeps customers happy.