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
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