The Owners: Nick di Donato

theowners-didonato Known for The Liberty Grand, Rosewater, The Phoenix Concert Theatre, Spice Route, Courthouse and half a dozen more Toronto hotspots…

How Nick met hospitality
I always worked in the industry, to pay for school. It was a means to an end—to accomplish something else. Once I got my profession, I said there’s no other life like the restaurant life. My technical background helped me design the flow, kitchen, bar, efficiencies. I worked for Imperial Oil and I learned about structure and corporation, inventory control, scheduling systems, all those things that helped me create multiple restaurants, standards, stewardship. Right from the get-go my objective was to put a system in place of how to control costs, etc. Many times a restaurant can appear to be full and in six months they close down because they are not in control.

How a sports bar inspired design
My first restaurant was a sports bar, PM Toronto, next to Maple Leaf Gardens. I realized what you need to do is design appropriately for the location. When we started, there was no such thing as a pool table in a bar. And the liquor board said, no, you can’t have an ancillary business, so the pool was free, TVs came into play and we had customers going to the Gardens and if they couldn’t get in, they could watch the game on our big-screen TV. We developed the concept; we were the first, in 1986. We learned that we needed to develop the business and create the model around location.

He loves the nightlife
One thing differentiates the two: Open a restaurant, you are the hero in the neighbourhood; open a club, and you are the villain… the police department, the noise, it’s always a problem. But clubs are more profitable than restaurants. It was a good business to be in and we were very successful. The Phoenix Concert Theatre had the top bands: Rolling Stones, Tragically Hip, Metallica. We also had clubs Velvet Underground, C Lounge, the Tattoo Rock Parlour.

We are family
I opened a resto on the side [while studying engineering] with my brother Pat just for fun, and that fun turned out to be very profitable. Pat studied hospitality at Humber College so he is more on the operations side. My role is moving forward, his role is making sure that we maintain what we have. My wife Nadia, is our creative director. She has designed every restaurant since the Rosewater. A fashion designer by trade and a graphic artist, she started doing menu design. Now she creates the whole package: interior design, logos, print material, design outfits for servers. We’ve been recognized for the interiors of our spaces.

Labour of love
My favourite part is creating a new restaurant concept. Now we have a brand, Cibo, and we are opening multiple restaurants; one in Toronto on King West, and one in the Coral Gables neighbourhood in Miami. We travel to Japan, India, Russia, where you can get inspired. We look at architecture, commercial spaces, restaurants. Spice Route was the culmination of a trip to India and Japan. The day to day is not as exciting, but you need to do it. That’s where the good team comes in: executive chef Michael Ewing does a great job.

Go south
We’ve always wanted to expand beyond Toronto, but in our way: We feel the fabric of the city, the culture, each corner for location. My son went to the University of Miami, so as a result, I was able to understand the fabric of that city. When the Coral Gables Country Club became available, we had a big enough venue to justify my effort. I now have the infrastructure, the relationships and the understanding of Miami. It’s becoming more difficult to open in Toronto, costs are becoming prohibitive, but if you can make it in Toronto, you can make it anywhere. Now, we have Cibo wine bar and the Athletic Club in Coral Gables, the Liberty Caffé and we’re building Cibo wine bar in South Beach.

Civic pride
I have always wanted to give back. I work with Toronto city hall in economic development. I am on the board of directors for Tourism Toronto, board of directors for Invest Toronto, and am the first civilian Commissioner on the Toronto Transit Commission Board of Directors. In Miami, we are involved in the city’s film festival, the University of Miami, Loews Museum and Miami Children’s hospital.

Best advice
Surround yourself with the right people and have the experts in each of the areas. Delegate in an intelligent way. Put the right people in the right place.

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