Model Citizen

Foodservice 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 time.

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.

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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.

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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.

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