Times & Dimes Podcast

Episode 4: Finding a work-life balance as a business owner

What is the toll of owning five restaurants in a hyper-competitive industry? Host Graham Clark finds out from Toby, a former bartender who took a big risk investing family and friends’ money to build a series of successful pubs and eateries.

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GRAHAM CLARK: This is Times & Dimes, a podcast brought to you by Sun Life. We're talking to everyday Canadians about how money affects their lives, happiness, and well-being. I'm your host, Graham Clark, with today’s guest, Toby.


GC: Hi, Toby! Thanks for being a part of this.

TOBY: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

GC: So, you were in the restaurant biz for, is it right, over 25 years?

T: Yep, that… sort of shows my age. About 25 years. I started when I was about 18 years old.

GC: Yeah. Well, in my industry, I have been at it for 20 years, so don't worry about 25. I just look at it in awe that anybody can…

T: Could handle that?

GC: Yeah, exactly. You know, 25 years — I mean, people are lucky if they get 25 months, so…

T: I mean, that was the initial plan, too, 25 months. I was sort of bartending my way through university and then here I am a quarter of a century later.

GC: And what made you kind of move on from bartending, because I know people that have bartended for 15–20 years — what made you, as a bartender, kind of think about making that leap to doing something else bigger than being a bartender?

T: I mean, I started below that. I was a bus boy, I was in the kitchen, but, yeah, bartending was halfway up there.

GC: That's right, OK.

T: Yeah, I was already halfway up the ladder at that point, so, like I said, I was going to university, I got out of university. There wasn't really a— you know, I was working on a sociology degree and not a lot of work out there for sociology degrees. So, I kind of stuck around, but it's something I always enjoyed. And then, by the time I was about 25, I decided this is what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do my own thing and open my own restaurant.

GC: That's really inspirational because, yeah, I think people do feel hemmed in by their university studies and either just finishing it or specializing, trying to get into that field, so the fact that you liked something and said, “Well, I'm going to do it because I like it,” I think that's pretty inspirational.

T: Yeah, well you can't do this if you don't like it. You’ve gotta like it a lot because you go through a lot to get where you are.

GC: As a young bartender, could you have conceived of running and owning five businesses ever? Was that possible to you?

T: I mean, I'll be honest with you, even when I opened the first business in 2008, there was no intention to go to five restaurants. It was just, let's open one, let's be successful. There was no plan to open any others, just… the fortunate success of the first restaurant and the need to continue to create was a big thing.

It's lots of fun to run a restaurant but the most fun is starting it up. It's, you know, creating the concepts, creating menus, getting the right people in there. And that, unfortunately, is always now in my mind and I can't— my wife hates it, but I'm constantly on the lookout for new ideas, new concepts, new locations.

GC: So, you’re a bartender. You've finished school, I imagine. And then you decide, at some point, to open a restaurant. Then, where do you go from saying “OK, I think I could do this”? What's the next step?

T: Yeah, so I went up the ranks as well. I never actually finished, I never quite graduated. I’m a few credits short because I just got too much into this when I realized, you start looking at the at the career path of your chosen diploma, and I sort of threw myself more into the restaurant industry. So, yeah, I bartended, then I managed, and I got a great opportunity about 2004-ish: I got to be the general manager of the bars of the W Hotel here in Montreal. And that was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, but working for New Yorkers, the way that they run their restaurants more business-like, learning from them was a big, big step for me. I don't know if I would have been successful if I hadn't.

GC: And, you know, speaking to that, having to account for every cent of your business, I imagine that you have many people working on that front, but ultimately it kind of filters up to you. How important is that in your day-to-day work, just making sure that all the money is accounted for and doing the most that it can?

T: Yeah, I mean, the money that’s accounted for is… that's obviously super important, but it's not just that you're cash balances at the end of the night. It's the little things like hitting up suppliers and getting 10% off here, or switching suppliers, watching how many pens you bought — things like that. It just becomes… when we first started, I was very, very anal about that, maybe a little bit less now, but all the little things where you just see a penny going away makes me very anxious when I see that happen.

GC: Yeah, and does that kind of policy, that attention to detail, does that bleed into the personal life? Is that also the way that you manage your personal finance or is it two very different things?

T: I mean, I'm pretty good with my personal finances, but I’m definitely much more vigilant on the business side than on the personal side.

GC: Is that because the cost of getting it wrong is so much higher in your business?

T: Yeah, that. I have partners, I have responsibilities, I have employees, I have all that — but yeah it does. I mean, if I screw up and put lose $2,000 by putting in the wrong place in my own personal life, that's too bad, but it's myself and my family who suffers, as opposed to possibly like you said 125 people.

GC: So, when you were starting out, you got kind of a lesson from these New York folks and what was the next step? How do you start something that's so complicated as owning your own business and trying to participate in that very competitive world, which is the restaurant business?

T: Yeah, I mean, obviously, I had an inkling to do this— in fact, I had almost started a business right before I started working with the New Yorkers and then it all fell through with a partner. But I’d always been working on a business plan. I had an idea. I always wanted to do a British pub in Montreal, an English pub or British pub in Montreal. I like the juxtaposition of having a British or English pub in a French-Canadian market.

GC: I love it.

T: And, yeah, so I always wanted to do that. All my family's from the UK, and my grandfather was a pub landlord in the forties and fifties, too, so it’s sort of in my blood. But I also wanted to do something a little bit different. The whole concept of the Burgundy Lion, when we opened it, is that there was a bunch of Irish pubs in Montreal, but I wanted to you to be able to come in to get a martini, or a nice glass of wine, or a nice cocktail, and that didn't really exist in this market. So, I saw a hole in the market and I just started building a business plan. I ended up with a friend, a couple of friends, who I sort of talked into this idea, and then somebody that I worked with at the W — one of my employees of the W who was really, really good — jumped on as well and off we went, 2008. We opened in the summer of 2008.

GC: So, you were working with your friends and getting some of the early financing for the business from friends. Was that more stressful than if you had gone to the bank because they were people that you knew, they were friends of yours?

T: I tried banks, I tried different financial institutions, but it's just it's very difficult. Myself, I even I went to family and friends, and leveraged— you know, I borrowed money from everywhere, I cashed in all of my RSPs. Yeah, I was down to nothing and my pockets were bare when we opened it; so it was definitely a risk, yeah.

GC: Do you feel like because you put so much on the line — that your RSPs are cashed out, all the money you have, friends money in there — did it feel like that was kind of a more important key to your success because it meant so much to you? Would it have been if somebody just floated you the loan no problem?

T: Yeah, I mean you can't feel— like you said, the family, the friends, that sort of thing would have harped on me for years and years and years if I lost their money.

GC: Yeah.

T: That was definitely a major motivator, but, yeah, it was all the eggs in one basket there. I had no choice: work as many hours as you have to, be there every day of the week, and figure it out until it's working.

GC: And how is kind of the constant work and everything needs… attention to detail, how does that work balance with your family and your life outside the restaurant? Is there time? Can you make the balance?

T: There's very, especially at the beginning, there was very little time outside. I mean, this is before I had my own family, which I don't know how anybody would do it when they have a young family like I do, a young daughter at least. I lost a couple of girlfriends through the years, there was definitely, in my a lot of my relationships, there was a stress put on the relationships and demands from my partners to give them more time. It just didn't seem like that was something I could do.

GC: And so, at the beginning, you found a location, and how much work needed to be done on the location to make your vision come true?

T: It was a location, it was a restaurant that had closed. Something even more intimidating, it was a restaurant that four different restaurants had closed within the last three years in at one location.

GC: Oh wow!

T: So, that makes you nervous, but I'd been looking at the location for a few years and I kept looking, and it kept flipping and changing hands. I was like, “I missed it again, I missed it again.” But the building looks like a pub, it was in a neighborhood I wanted to be in. It wasn't a pub and it did take reservations, but when we worked on a really, really, really tight budget. Basically, we were going in at 4 p.m.— well, the construction guys were coming during the day. At 4 p.m., we’d go in. They teach us how to screw something in, nail something in, paint something, stain something. And we worked until about two or three in the morning. The next morning, we’d start working on menus and administrative stuff. We built a lot of it with our own hands, which is, you know, it's rewarding definitely at the end of it.

GC: That really is amazing that it wasn't like, OK, bring in the construction guys, see you guys in a couple months, that you were…

T: I don't know who could afford to do that! We had no choice, yeah. No, we were in there every day with a hammer, nails, paint — all that stuff. I learned how to be a construction guy pretty quick.

(Musical interlude)

GC: Moving from your first business to your second business, was that easier or is it just as stressful every time you do it, in terms of the money and the startup mechanism you need to kick into gear?

T: Definitely less stressful in that it was money that I sort of accumulated from the first business, so I didn't owe anyone any money. There was no loans. It was none of that; it was, if I lost it, it was money that I’d made over the last couple of years from another restaurant that I assumed. And I always had the first restaurant to fall back on. We wouldn't have opened another restaurant if we didn't think that the first restaurant would continue to thrive because it is great to have that fallback spot for you. So, yeah, it's definitely less stressful in the second one, but it's still always, always a risk opening a new restaurant.

GC: Yeah. In that first business that you'd borrowed money from friends and maxed out your RSP, how long did it take to pay that back and also replenish the RSP to where it was?

T: It was… knock on wood, it was remarkably quick. It was a lot quicker than I thought. I told everyone I’d get their money back to them in five years — before five years — and I had it all back to them in about 18 months.

GC: Get out! Wow, that's…

T: And that was when— it was about two years after we opened the first one that we opened the second, and that's, once I paid everyone bought back, that's when I said, “OK we could start looking at opening else.”

GC: It sounds like— not that there weren't struggles in the first business, but it sounds like it took off quite quickly. Were there any major struggles in that 18 months before you were able to pay back everybody? Was there any kind of roadblocks?

T: I mean, at first, there was roadblocks. Construction went way over budget; there was mistakes with construction company, so we owed them money for a bunch. The first four or five months, it was definitely stressful. We weren't ahead, you know, we were still sort of catching up paying off the debt of construction. There was the hours — the hours were insane. Myself and one other guy we're doing every shift and we were open from ten in the morning till three in the morning, so that’s a lot of hours. Plus, I didn't have an accounting or bookkeeping team yet, which I do now, it's much nicer. So, I was sort of learning bookkeeping on my own and trying to handle the books myself at the same time as working on the floor 80 hours a week. So, yeah, you're stressed, but that's what every restaurant— I mean, I’m not any different from any restaurateur. I think that we all do that. We all have to when we first open a restaurant. So, yeah, the stress is you're not sleeping— you know what, you're almost too tired to be stressed. And things are going well; if things are going well, you see people, you're on the floor, and people keep coming in, then you really don't have time to on a day-to-day basis be stressed, you know.

GC: Yeah, absolutely. And, in that time period, were you able to pay yourself? Were you making a wage or was this just 100% sweat into the business?

T: For the first three months, I think I made $500 a week.

GC: Yikes!

T: Yeah, so that was my pay for a little while. But, hey, I work in a restaurant, right? There’s food there! There’s food there, I was there all day, I didn't spend any money, right? I'm at the restaurant today, so there was enough money just to pay my rent, that's about it.

GC: And, because you always hear that you learn more from mistakes and failures than you do by successes, do you find that to be the case in your regard?

T: I would say 100% because after the first two, I thought I was invulnerable, I was greatest restauranteur in the world. Them both being such immediate successes that I thought whatever we do is going to be great, it's all going to work out— what is this industry? It’s not so hard. Why’s everyone saying it’s so hard?

GC: Yeah. What, for you, has been one of the the high points of owning these businesses?

T: I mean, it's definitely when the first business, when I’d— I think it's probably the day that repaid all the loans, the personal loans that I’d borrowed. And I didn't repay them — I didn't ask for a loan, I asked for an investment. I actually doubled their money. I promised to double their money, and it was when I doubled their money, and giving them back more than they’d given me and rewarded their faith in me. That was, obviously, a huge day and a huge weight off my shoulders, obviously, that I hadn't failed these people. Certain things— I mean, every time we opened a restaurant, every time, like I said, I bring on one of my ex-employees and watch them grow, and watch them grow into management and then ownership level, and watch them operate a restaurant and see how well they do it, that is always a huge point of pride for me.

GC: Wow! You told the people that you would double their money. Why such a lofty promise, because that's quite a bit more than I think most investors expect to get returned?

T: I mean, again, this is family and friends who were taking a risk in the toughest business in the world, right? So, if they're going to take a chance on me to take that risk… I mean, the thing about the restaurant— it's either going to go horribly bad right at the beginning and they're just going to lose all their money, or maybe it's going to go really well and I'll be able to pay them back quickly, which is what the case was, right? But they put it… as far as I know, nobody was stretching their finances. This is money that they had, hopefully, nest-egged away and they didn't have any other use for it, but it was a big, big risk for them. They took that risk. I feel like I didn't want it just to be a loan from family; I wanted to do things like a business and I wanted to get them not to be people loaning me money, but investing money into a business.

GC: Was there anything in this journey of yours that came as a real surprise?

T: Taxes.


GC: They’ll sneak up on you! And what does the future hold for you? Is it more expansions, is it just kind of staying where it is and growing more roots into the community? What's the future?

T: It's really hard to tell, honestly. I mean, two out of the five restaurants weren't planned. Like I said, the Brit and Chips and, actually, the most recent when we opened, somebody came to me and said they had a space. It was in the neighborhood that I knew very well, that I liked, that I've been thinking about doing something in. And I went and saw the space, I was like “This looks like a pub, this needs to be a pub,” so let's put a pub in here.

I always say I'm done, I always think I'm done, and then I get the itch and it's, like I said at the top, the creative desire… you don't want to get stagnant. I've been sitting in an office for the last six hours doing paperwork and that's not what I got into this industry for. I mean, it's absolutely necessary and I get it, but I need to still have that hands-on experience, and the best hands-on experience — the most fun and entertaining, challenging hands-on experience — is the opening process of a restaurant.

GC: Well, Toby, this has been a real treat. Thanks so much for being a part of this and congratulations on all your success.

T: Thank you very much and thank you for taking the time.


GC: Money plays a huge role in all our lives and it's not always easy to talk about it, but we truly believe that having open, honest conversations about money can help improve your mental, physical, and financial health.

Before we go, we'd like to ask our listeners if they've ever found themselves in a situation similar to Toby. If you have, you can find resources to help you at sunlife.ca.

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