Je Sto­ber’s ex­pand­ing em­pire of twee

Je Sto­ber, the ex­act­ing owner of the Drake Ho­tel, has ex­ported his quirky brand of twee all over the city. Now he plans to con­quer the rest of the world, one tchotchke at a time

Toronto Life - - Front Page - by re­becca philps pho­tog­ra­phy by christo­pher wahl

JEFF STO­BER IS COL­O­NIZ­ING Queen West. Over the past four years, he has stealth­ily bought up four build­ings east of the Drake, his bou­tique ho­tel at the cor­ner of Queen and Bea­cons­field: the old Lot 16 dive bar, the Queen Star Chi­nese restau­rant, a vin­tage fur­ni­ture shop called Nick­nacks and a used ap­pli­ance store. He’s trans­form­ing those build­ings into the An­nex, a mas­sive ex­pan­sion to the orig­i­nal Drake. When it opens in 2018, the new space will add 35 rooms to the prop­erty, plus a grand lobby that in­te­grates a new Drake Gen­eral Store.

The An­nex is the cul­mi­na­tion of a re­lent­less long game for Sto­ber. He’s an in­tensely fo­cused guy who has his eyes si­mul­ta­ne­ously on the de­tails and the big pic­ture. He’s al­ways hus­tling, al­ways plot­ting, al­ways 10 steps ahead. His drive is im­pres­sive, and a lit­tle scary. In late Septem­ber, Sto­ber in­vited me to sit in on a meet­ing while he fi­nal­ized plans for the An­nex in a board­room off the Drake’s Sky Yard pa­tio. Ev­ery­where he goes, he brings a coun­cil of se­nior staff, who gaze at him in earnest equipoise, hang­ing on to his ev­ery word. This meet­ing was no ex­cep­tion. There was John Tong of the de­sign firm Tong­tong, Sto­ber’s long­time part­ner who over­saw the first it­er­a­tion of the Drake and de­signed Sto­ber’s For­est Hill home, as well as his Soho loft. There was Bill Simp­son, the glad-hand­ing Drake head of op­er­a­tions. And there was Denise Carter, who’s been Sto­ber’s straight­shoot­ing as­sis­tant for the past 25 years and ba­si­cally runs his life.

Tong pre­sented ren­der­ings for the new lobby, and men­tioned the in­flu­ence of the Dover Street mar­kets in Lon­don and New York. Sto­ber erupted in a glee­ful belch. “HA-LLLO!” This is what he says when he’s ex­cited. It’s a ver­bal tic that’s half Peter Sellers and half Looney Tunes. The staff smirk when he does it, like it’s the quirk of a dotty un­cle, but there isn’t a per­son in the Drake uni­verse who doesn’t want to get a ha-lllo! out of Sto­ber.

And yet when Tong sug­gested large col­umns for the new lobby and store space, there was a tun­dra of si­lence. Sto­ber fi­nally spoke. “Seems like a lot of ego. No. Doesn’t feel right.” Fif­teen years ago, when Sto­ber pur­chased the ho­tel, he fought off ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing an in­ter­loper, an evil gen­tri­fier, in­au­then­tic—so he’s par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive about in­te­grat­ing into the neigh­bour­hood. Sto­ber plans to con­nect the two build­ings by a cov­ered bridge, which will be de­signed to look like a train car. Ha-lllo! The pen­t­house owner’s suite will mir­ror the loft Sto­ber owns in Soho, with garage doors lead­ing from the bed­room to the liv­ing quar­ters. Ha-lllo!

Later, while look­ing at ren­der­ings for the ho­tel’s new en­suite bath­rooms, Sto­ber ze­roed in on a sketch of a shower with an ex­posed pipe. “Why would you ex­pose a frag­ile pipe? That’s a non-starter. What hap­pens when peo­ple have sex in the shower? They’ll rip it off. They’ll burn them­selves on it. No. I have zero in­ter­est in that. Next?”

Sto­ber’s ex­act­ing taste has de­ter­mined the Drake aes­thetic, which bal­ances old and new, high-brow and low, earnest and ironic. He’s a fas­tid­i­ous mi­cro­man­ager and a de­mand­ing boss whose staff wor­ship him no mat­ter how hard he pushes them. And he’s al­ways push­ing. Last year, when he needed to buy a new chan­de­lier for the Drake lobby, he made his chief cu­ra­tor, Mia Nielsen, call five de­sign firms and put them all through an RFP process; he as­sessed the op­tions with Tong ev­ery week for nine months, but noth­ing was good enough—and he still hasn’t had his ha-lllo! mo­ment.

He has a slight build and hums with the pent-up en­ergy of a teenage boy—he flits de­ci­sively around the ho­tel, eyes on ev­ery­thing, greet­ing staff with a hug or a dou­ble-cheek air kiss. Sto­ber over­sees more than 450 peo­ple across his Drake em­pire, and yet he’s the fi­nal ar­biter on ev­ery im­por­tant de­ci­sion (which, in his mind, in­cludes the in­stal­la­tion of a new chan­de­lier). He dresses in the uni­form of an af­flu­ent ur­ban­ite: a de­lib­er­ately thread­bare mo­tor­cy­cle jacket, slim-cut jeans, cash­mere hood­ies and a leath­ery whiff of cologne. Only his grey­ing crown of fuzzy poo­dle curls be­tray his age (he’s 56). De­spite his man­i­cured ap­pear­ance, Sto­ber is goofy and spir­ited, quick to com­pli­ment his staff on their work, and just as quick to note a crooked frame or a chipped table­top or de­mand an an­swer for why he saw a neg­a­tive re­view on TripAd­vi­sor (yes, he reads the com­ments).

The bones of his spa­ces are fa­mil­iar to any Cana­dian who grew up play­ing board games in a rec room: he uses lots of raw wood, and red brick, and warm brass, and scratchy wool. That mix is par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to the 25- to 40-year-old de­mo­graphic, the gen­er­a­tion caught up in to­day’s quick churn of man­u­fac­tured nos­tal­gia. Sto­ber has a knack for mar­ket­ing that kind of stuff, and he’s made a for­tune off of it.

This past Au­gust, around 35,000 peo­ple came through the Drake. At full oc­cu­pancy, the 19-room ho­tel ac­counted for just 600 of them. The rest were lo­cals. Sto­ber has cre­ated a space that’s ca­sual and play­ful, with art not just hang­ing on its walls but in­te­grated into its skin. So kids guz­zling Pabst in the base­ment club feel just as com­fort­able as condo de­vel­op­ers sip­ping scotch at the bar.

Sto­ber has a se­cond ho­tel, a restau­rant and eight stores in his port­fo­lio now, but he isn’t sat­is­fied. In ad­di­tion to build­ing the An­nex, he’s ag­gres­sively ex­pand­ing the Drake Gen­eral Store and de­vel­op­ing an im­pres­sive whole­sale range of in-house de­signs that are be­ing car­ried by in­ter­na­tional re­tail­ers. And his de­vel­op­ment team is scout­ing lo­ca­tions for new ho­tel prop­er­ties across Canada and in the States. His lofty goal is to bring Queen West to the rest of the world.

STO­BER IS A CHAOTIC DOC­U­MEN­TAR­IAN. In the late ’90s, he started col­lect­ing ephemera from his trav­els and shoved the bits and pieces into a three-ring binder, a beast of a thing barely held to­gether by duct tape. It’s the DNA of the Drake brand. In it are band fly­ers, mag­a­zine tear sheets of Betty and Ger­ald Ford’s Palm Springs house in the 1970s, news­pa­per clip­pings about street­style pho­tog­ra­phy, post­cards from the Viceroy in Santa Mon­ica. There are ar­ti­cles about the Ace Ho­tel open­ing in Port­land, about the bur­geon­ing art scene in down­town L.A., about the re-emer­gence of Shored­itch in east Lon­don. There are Post-its in Sto­ber’s pre­cise, left-lean­ing block let­ters, de­scrib­ing old-fash­ioned photo booths and vend­ing ma­chines and art books and bike-shar­ing pro­grams and sex-toy menus in ho­tels. (The Drake is the only place in Canada to of­fer one.) It’s the col­lec­tion of some­one who has ob­ses­sively stud­ied the art of hip­ness.

In its chaos, it’s also a liv­ing ar­ti­fact of Sto­ber’s manic mind. When he’s seated at the Drake café, dry al­mond-milk cap­puc­cino in hand, his eyes are ev­ery­where, tak­ing in who is sit­ting in the restau­rant and who is walk­ing by, and call­ing out rapid­fire greet­ings to passersby, like Kevin Drew of Bro­ken So­cial Scene and Jef­frey Reme­dios, the CEO of Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Canada. He speaks in long, un­in­ter­rupted so­lil­o­quies. It’s a chal­lenge to hold his at­ten­tion and em­bar­rass­ingly sat­is­fy­ing when you suc­ceed.

Sto­ber isn’t on Face­book or Twit­ter or Tum­blr—he’s a so­cial me­dia re­sister. He has an old-model Black­Berry, but he mainly uses it to call and text; he doesn’t even have a data plan. He spends most of his time off­line, read­ing and an­swer­ing emails for only an hour each day. Sto­ber val­ues im­mer­sive, per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences over dig­i­tal ones. Es­pe­cially when it comes to travel—he greed­ily col­lects Air Miles the way most peo­ple col­lect In­sta­gram likes. In the se­cond half of 2015, he vis­ited New York three times, and trav­elled to L.A., Paris, Lon­don (for the Frieze con­tem­po­rary art fair) and Mi­ami (for Art Basel). He builds the itin­er­ary for ev­ery trip—it’s a chore he tack­les with rel­ish. Wher­ever he goes, he never stops hus­tling: in ev­ery city, he co­zies up to concierges, in­ter­rupts strangers on the street to com­pli­ment them on their out­fits, and asks the cool-look­ing cou­ple at the bar which gal­leries are worth a visit.

It’s not that there are blurred lines be­tween Sto­ber’s work and per­sonal life. It’s that there are no lines. Sto­ber’s clos­est friends are his se­nior staff. His ro­man­tic life is the sub­ject of much swirling spec­u­la­tion among the gal­lerists and cre­atives of Queen West. He’s never been mar­ried and has no chil­dren. He says he’s dat­ing some­one, but won’t tell me who. His con­stant com­pan­ion at art open­ings and fundrais­ers is his best friend, Anne Pen­ney, a hand­some di­vor­cée with a halo of ringlets and sky-high cheek­bones. They got to know one an­other as neigh­bours 20 years ago when they lived on the same street in For­est Hill, and now she works part-time in the Drake Gen­eral Store.

Sto­ber has an un­usu­ally close re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents, whom he uniron­i­cally calls his “besties.” David and El­lie fre­quently travel to Toronto from Mon­treal to spend time with their son. David, who is 85, had a stroke two years ago that caused tem­po­rary paral­y­sis on one side of his body and left him bedrid­den. Sto­ber hired two full-time care­givers to re­ha­bil­i­tate his father. He’d call him, some­times mul­ti­ple times a day, to mo­ti­vate him, coach him, and straight-up ha­rass him to get up and walk. He’d yell at him like he was his box­ing cor­ner­man, “C’mon, David!” The care­givers filmed his father’s progress, and when David even­tu­ally be­gan to walk shak­ily on his own, Jeff glee­fully showed his friends and staff the footage.

The Drake Gen­eral Store in Ottawa

The pav­il­ion of the Drake Devon­shire in Prince Ed­ward County

The Drake One Fifty brasserie at York and Ade­laide The Drake Ho­tel as it cur­rently stands on Queen Street West

A suite at the Drake

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