Grass may not make it greener

How cannabis le­gal­iza­tion will im­pact Toronto’s vi­brant restau­rant scene

Richmond Hill Post - - Food - by Ben Ka­plan

Le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis, which be­comes official Oct. 17, has al­ready in­flu­enced Bay Street and the real estate mar­ket and has at­tracted en­trepreneurs who want to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties in this bur­geon­ing in­dus­try. But what does this change mean for Toronto’s din­ing scene?

To an­swer that ques­tion, it’s help­ful to con­sider other mar­kets who have gone through the same process. In Colorado, for in­stance, where cannabis was le­gal­ized ( Jan. 1, 2014), the sales of mar­i­juana over­took al­co­hol for the first time in 2017. However, Colorado’s gross food and bev­er­age sales in 2014 were $2,972,760,803. In 2017, the num­ber reached $3,633,069,244.

Justin Brun­son, founder of Brun­son Con­cepts and named one of Den­ver’s most in­flu­en­tial restau­ra­teurs by Za­gat, has seen le­gal­iza­tion have an im­pact on his six restau­rants.

However, it’s not a sud­den spike in na­cho sales or drop in liquor pur­chases or even pa­trons suc­cumb­ing to laugh­ing fits into their en­trees that has caught Brun­son’s at­ten­tion. In­stead, it’s the changes in the labour pool.

“I would say the only real im­pact on the restau­rant in­dus­try would be that the cannabis in­dus­try has dras­ti­cally re­duced the worker pool,” says Brun­son.

“Most pot shops can pay $15 plus per hour — plus full ben­e­fits — for a job that is way eas­ier than any­thing in a restau­rant. Turnover is at an all-time high, and we are left com­pet­ing with the pot shops to fill low-level hourly jobs.”

Does this seem likely for the fine din­ing scene post-cannabis le­gal­iza­tion in Toronto? Ac­cord­ing to chef Marc Thuet, a fourth­gen­er­a­tion French chef who has worked in Miche­lin-starred restau­rants across Europe, as well as Rose­wa­ter, the Fifth and Ate­lier Thuet here in the city, it does and it doesn’t.

A self-de­scribed ad­dict, Thuet, now 30 years sober, is acutely aware of what cannabis le­gal­iza­tion might mean for Toronto’s finer restau­rants.

“Liquor sales will go down, wine sales will go down. It’s pos­si­ble that food sales will go up, but that’s in the Burger Pri­ests of the world — the fast-food busi­ness will in­crease, but restau­rants aren’t go­ing to see any changes,” says Thuet, cur­rently bak­ing for the Four Sea­sons, Royal York Ho­tel and 80 other clients from his 6,000-square foot bak­ery in Les­lieville.

“Le­gal­iza­tion won’t change menus,” he says. “If peo­ple were smok­ing dope, they’d be smok­ing dope al­ready. They don’t have to wait for Oct. 17.”

Ac­cord­ing to Charles Khabouth, who owns 16 restau­rants in Toronto (in­clud­ing Byblos, Sofia and Wes­lodge to name a few) and serves 3,000 din­ers a night, pot is some­thing from which the savvy en­tre­pre­neur can’t steer clear.

He re­calls chas­ing cannabis com­pa­nies out of his of­fice two years ago when they pitched him on partnerships, and now — Post City has learned in an ex­clu­sive — he’s lay­ing the ground­work for his new pro­ject Wink. A con­trac­tion of the words “weed” and “Ink,” (the name of his com­pany), the pro­ject will op­er­ate some­thing like the cannabis-in­flu­enced cof­fee shop Tokyo Smoke, which aims to serve weed in a stylish en­vi­ron­ment.

“In the be­gin­ning, I was dead against it. Charles Khabouth sell­ing drugs? I didn’t want the con­nec­tion, but when the ex–chief of po­lice [of Toronto Bill Blair] is in­volved and the CEO of the largest phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany on the planet — yeah, I’m in­ter­ested,” he says. “Now, it would be weird if we weren’t part of it.”

But will it im­pact his hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness? “Out­side of train­ing our staff to ob­serve signs in peo­ple who’ve overindulged, cannabis le­gal­iza­tion isn’t go­ing to change the things we do,” says Khabouth.

Hemp­ster is a Toronto-based on­line cannabis com­mu­nity and well­ness brand that de­signs recipes that fuse mar­i­juana with gourmet meals. Co-founded by chef Ron­nie Fish­man, the com­pany holds cannabis ed­u­ca­tional events for the pub­lic and of­fers home chefs in­struc­tion on how to in­fuse meals with mar­i­juana flow­ers, oils and ex­tracts. Fish­man, a vet­eran of the Gusto 54 restau­rant group, says that even if Toronto’s top chefs wanted to cook with cannabis, most of them wouldn’t know where to be­gin.

“Just be­cause they’re chefs doesn’t mean they know any­thing about cannabis,” says Fish­man. “Peo­ple who come to our cook­ing demos are from For­est Hill and Rosedale. They want in­for­ma­tion on how to pre­pare things not to make you screwed up [from the ef­fects of THC], but to make some­thing de­li­cious to eat.”

The in­tro­duc­tion of le­gal­ized cannabis has cre­ated a Wild West at­mos­phere with plenty of money fly­ing around for new busi­ness ini­tia­tives with lit­tle idea what will work and what will not. But that will all change as the in­dus­try ma­tures and blos­soms, stars emerge and laws are set. When a com­pany such as the li­censed pro­ducer Aurora is in talks to pur­chase brew­ers like Steamwhis­tle — and heavy­weight com­pa­nies like Coca Cola are try­ing to mus­cle their way in — ex­pect the sport drink and al­co­hol world to also face dis­rup­tion.

In the mean­time, however, ac­cord­ing to restau­rant in­dus­try stal­warts like Brun­son and Thuet, don’t ex­pect abrupt changes.

“I don’t think a restau­rant like Alo is de­signed for some­one stoned. You can do it, but I don’t think Pa­trick Kriss is mak­ing food for peo­ple screwed up on weed, whether or not it’s le­gal,” says Thuet.

By and large, restau­rants aren’t go­ing to change their menus to adapt to a post-le­gal­iza­tion world, and ed­i­bles — foods in­fused with cannabis — won’t even be le­gal un­til 2019.

Marc Thuet and his wife Biana Zorich

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