Stumbled Upon a Gem

It was a warm day in June 2008. I was walking along Lakeshore Blvd. West when I noticed a HELP WANTED sign in a window of small soon-to-be restaurant. As a university student, (who already had a job, but was always looking for extra ways to pay off OSAP), I knocked on the door on a whim. I was greeted by a cheerful chocolate lab, and a man of medium build, with cascading dark hair and glasses. Looking confused and almost annoyed, he gave me a hesitant hi in a thick Québécois accent.
“Hi! I saw the note in your window saying you’re hiring.” I beamed.
My friendly manner hit him unexpectedly.
“Oh yeah, hang on.”

The Chef disappeared down a small hallway leading to the back. I looked around the room to dispersed furniture and equipment dressed in brown paper accents and shawls of plastic. It was small and quaint, a space that could seat about 40. A dark brown banquette lined the wall closest to me, with a few matching brown tables already hugging it. Everything was covered in a beige, fresh pine-scented dust, as if to match the colours of the walls. At the far end was a wooden bar with a window looking into a shiny silver kitchen where a faint radio played top 40. A minute later, I heard footsteps coming upstairs. The Manager arrived.

A tall, friendly and vibrant Bajan woman apologized for the surrounding mess and shook my hand eagerly. Glad to have me drop in, she pulled up a chair and the two of us sat down at the tip of the banquette for an impromptu interview. After a minute of trying to pronounce my name, we spoke for about ten more, and I became the restaurant’s first hire, just a few weeks away from the grand opening. “Should be fun,” I thought as I passed the threshold onto the sunny street. Little did I know, that this would not be just another part-time job…

“People thought we were a chain from Québec, …every single little thing had a look and feel, it spoke Québecois. …That is the kja way.”

If you’ve ever tried to start a new venture, you know you need people to help you. As the Greek philosopher Pericles once said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Think back to your favourite job and you will find it was the people that made it so enjoyable. Whether employees, contract workers, suppliers, or mentors, you need people to help you run a business and stay successful. Your chance of success increases dramatically if you are fortunate enough to have someone with experience guide you and give you honest feedback. According toFuturpreneur Canada, research shows that 70% of small businesses supported by a mentor survive for five years or more. Mentors light our way so that we see the obstacles before they come to view, they warn us so that we don’t trip on the same rocks as they did.Mentor 1Montréal, November 21, 2015

Exactly 10 years ago, almost to the day, a small Québécois restaurant called Café du Lac opened its doors at 2350 Lakeshore Blvd. W. in Etobicoke. Still introducing me as “Brunch Queen,” entrepreneur Kathryn Ashby has been my friend and my mentor since.

Kathryn Ashby is a Digital Marketer, owner of kja kreations.  She graduated from Marketing and Business Administration at Humber College and holds a couple of digital marketing and graphic design certificates along with over 18+ years of experience in the advertising/creative world. She’s worked with some of the best people in the business, alongside clients such as CIBC, TD Canada Trust, Ontario Place, Hydro One and Trimark. While gaining experience at a number of agencies, Kathryn noticed it took too long to make any changes and the client was getting charged each time someone touched the file. She wanted to cut time and costs by working directly with clients, so she started to pick up freelance work on the side and eventually started kja kreations in 2002. “So, a lot of it was through word-of-mouth, and it was just a natural progression. And for a lot of creatives when you get to a certain level, ….the only way you could make more money is to go off on your own. I didn’t do that to start making more money, that wasn’t my objective. My objective was to provide better service, to provide faster service, to save my clients’ money, and to be able to go direct,” Kathryn explains.

Kathryn was well equipped to run her own show, with industry knowledge as well as valuable advice from trusted colleagues. When working for John Wiley & Sons, a large education book publisher, Kathryn met her mentor, Dave Peters. At a time when few people in the industry were willing to share their knowledge, Dave showed Kathryn how to create covers and how to properly typeset. She’s happy to share that she still keeps in touch with to Dave to this day. Unfortunately because of a cyclist accident, Dave can no longer work full-time at agencies. He’s looking for freelance work, but it’s not easy because he doesn’t have as much digital experience, and now Kathryn is helping him find work. Kathryn mentors others, including me, because she understands the value of mentorship in one’s career. “So when I mentor people…I don’t just go out to do that, it just kinda happens, naturally, through osmosis… And I do it in many ways because people sat there and helped me out,” she shares.

Another individual who shaped Kathryn early on in her career is Loren Chudy, former Vice President when she worked for Ariad Communications, who said to her: “ ‘See this brochure that we’ve created for CIBC? We’re gonna spend probably 100 to 200 hours working on copy, working on the design, getting the client to sign off on it, … and the end user may look at it for a minute or two. We’ll be lucky if they look at it for five minutes. …You can’t get so close to it that you freak out [about tiny things], …because at the end of the day, most people don’t really care.’ So though I really have pride in my craft, at the same time I have to understand…who is seeing my craft, and that’s where the marketing side comes in,” she explains.

Thanks to Kathryn’s extensive experience in marketing and graphic design, the branding of Cafédu Lac was also on point: “People thought we were a chain from Québec, …every single little thing had a look and feel, it spoke Québecois. …That is the kja way.” Kathryn’s marketing strategy and friendly personality coupled with Chef Pierre’s food and charisma built the brand and a great reputation. We were continuously crowned with the title ‘Best Poutine in the city’ and we were all over Twitter in its heyday. Working on freelance projects while running a restaurant was stressful, however when Café du Lac closed four years later, kja kreations saved Kathryn from complete financial destruction.

Café du Lac is where we triumphed, struggled and grew. We were a small family of about 8 to 10 staff at any given time. Without sugarcoating it, some days were downright ugly: there were personality clashes, irritated words, angry customers, crazy employees, objects thrown, plates smashed, and drama, drama, drama. But we always found a way to get everything done; all orders were delivered, all tables were cleaned, and no matter the stress, we were still a family. At the end of a long day, we shared poutine, wine and laughs.

“…you work as hard, if not harder than I do, and I could trust you. Trust is a huge thing in a business.”

Mentor 4Working with Keshia Ashby at Café du Lac, December 31, 2010
Photo by Kathryn Ashby

One unexpected challenge that Kathryn faced was finding dishwashers. “Oh my god! The turnover in dishwashers! The crazy dishwashers, the drunk dishwashers, the dishwashers on drugs, …I could go on and on!” Kathryn exclaims, and the two of us burst into laughter remembering the craziness.

We saw countless dishwashers, bussers, as well as numerous chefs pass through the doors. In an industry notorious for sexual harassment and verbal abuse, where management is often involved or tacitly supportive, Kathryn was very protective of us front-of-house girls. If there was any mistreatment or harassment the culprit was immediately fired. Yet the real tragedy came in the Summer of 2010: when our Head Chef ran out on us and didn’t come back, it broke our family, setting off the brand’s slow decline. People loved our food and when the recipes changed, our food was no longer consistent with our brand. People complained, wrote negative reviews, stopped coming. The abandonment left us upset and angry but we remained loyal to one another and to the business. We put a smile on and did our jobs, shielding our customers from any sense of defeat. Although we continuously tried to replace our chef, it was difficult to find one that would live up to the Café du Lac name (and wasn’t nuts). It was one struggle after another, and after a hard fight, the restaurant closed its doors in mid-2012. We became part of the statistic: according to Restaurants Canada, 80% of restaurants fail within the first 3-5 years.

For Kathryn the biggest challenge as a restaurant owner was finding people with a good work ethic. “You and I both know that at Café du Lac I probably hired about 100 people, probably fired about 75 of them…throughout the entire 4-year period, and still only really work with one person, [you]…because you embodied the qualities of myself, you work as hard, if not harder than I do, and I could trust you. Trust is a huge thing in a business. And I think that’s the toughest thing to do, is to find people that you can trust, and who will work hard for you, and they’ll see it as much as their baby, …they’ll take as much ownership as you will. Most people don’t. Most people just wanna have their joe job. …To find people who will be part of your business and who will have those qualities is rare.”Mentor 3Jolly Roger, Barbados, May 2012

We never used the word ‘mentorship’ to describe our friendship, but when I started the 6rightest, I realized my friend Kathryn has been my mentor throughout the years. The transferable skills I developed at Café du Lac have brought me success in both my teaching and writing careers. They are the reason why I don’t freak out on my students in the classroom or feel any pressure with deadlines. A huge advantage of being a big part of a small business is wearing many hats. Having various responsibilities allowed me to grow and learn much more than just doing one job. Apart from my traditional roles as Server and Bartender, I problem-solved, managed reservations, translated menus, created new drinks, established efficient inventory and management systems, repeatedly fixed the espresso machine and printer, and made sure the boys didn’t blow up the kitchen when Kathryn was away in Barbados. Following Café du Lac I started teaching full-time while picking up writing projects on the side, and Kathryn and I continued to talk shop. She listened, gave me advice and often referred me to clients. To this day she sends clients my way and sometimes we collaborate on projects together. It is the strong work ethic that initially brought us together as friends. A decade later we are sitting at Kitchen on Sixth on Lakeshore, a brunch spot just a few kilometres down from where we met. The business closed, but the learning and the friendship from Café du Lac will last forever.

When I knocked on the restaurant’s door still covered in brown paper, I definitely didn’t anticipate the story that would unfold. Our lives could change in 10 minutes, with one simple interaction. If we’re open to opportunities and making connections, we can accomplish great things. But like sorting rocks, life passes our endeavors and our relationships through tests of hardship and time, to see which individuals will stay. If we are fortunate, in a pile of rocks there is a gem that is strong under pressure and shines even in dim light. It is this gem who remains throughout time.

Mentor 2Toronto, March 14, 2018

* A special thanks to Keshia Ashby, Monica Ashby, Beth McLinden-Dileo, Charlyn Irvine, Hudson Bernard, Wes Quehl, Damon Ulmi, and Sebastien Milot for their hard work and contribution to Café du Lac – a restaurant that many people in the city still remember to this day. A special thank you also to our number one loyal customers Patrick and Sarah De Vuono and Meera Boodhoo!

Published July 4, 2018

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