A winning recipe for living well

Restaurant owners pour savings into shared business

By David Hayes, The Toronto Star, October 28, 2006

One of my favourite urban rituals is brunch and there’s nowhere in Toronto I’d rather have it than at Le Petit Dejeuner. It’s a small restaurant on King St., just east of Jarvis, around the corner from St. Lawrence Market.

The clientele is a mix of artsy hipsters, young professionals living in the many nearby lofts and condos, and both students and faculty from the George Brown College campus across the street. But I often bring my 91-year-old mother to have brunch (she loves the place) and I once sat at the table next to a pinstripe-clad Queen’s Park bureaucrat and a lawyer as they kvetched about provincial politics.

Which means the place has a warmth and character that transcends trends. It has sparkly green banquettes (inherited from the previous tenant, who ran a short-lived diner), hardwood floors and exposed brick walls featuring photo exhibitions by local artists. There is a 12-foot-long, century-old bar (obtained off eBay and trucked to Toronto from Chicago) and flea market plates, mugs and teapots. When she’s there, which is much of the time, I’m greeted by co-owner Tonya Reid and I chat to her husband, chef Johan Maes, when he strolls through the restaurant in his kitchen whites to get a coffee.

Maes learned the cooking trade in his native Belgium, apprenticed in France and at a high-end restaurant in Scotland, and worked at Zola, The Windsor Arms and other notable Toronto spots before he and Reid opened Le Petit Dejeuner. His Eggs Benedict is, to my taste, the best in Toronto and the three-cheese omelette and croque madame are both superb, accompanied by rösti potatoes and an apple coleslaw. (He also makes the most authentic Belgian waffles in the city )

Reid and Maes’ idea was to create a comfortable restaurant that felt like their home. But, like many creative entrepreneurs, they’ve sunk all of their savings into their venture and don’t actually own a home. Like me, they’re renters.

“Sometimes I worry about the fact that we don’t own,” admits Reid. “I think because it’s a measure of success in our culture. But it leaves us free to concentrate on the business and to travel, which we both love to do.”

Reid, who is wearing a black scoop neck T-shirt and jeans, is a petite 37-year-old with a big smile. She is sitting at the kitchen table in their funky, 770-square-foot loft in Liberty Village with south-facing windows giving them a view of the 91-metre-high windmill at Exhibition Place. There are rough hardwood floors, eclectic furnishings and art, and mismatched china.

“You see,” Reid says. “From when we opened Le Petit Dejeuner in 2004, it’s been an extension of where we live. I want people to feel like they’re coming into our home. I really can’t imagine any other way of doing it.”

Maes, a tall, wiry 33-year-old, says: “It’s my idea to live here, hire more staff to relieve some of the load at the restaurant and work on a cookbook.”

The couple met in the mid-’90s when Reid, who had briefly and unhappily worked for a management consulting firm, was doing her masters at the University of Edinburgh’s respected Centre of African Studies. She took a job as a waitress at the Grain Store, a nice restaurant in the city’s theatre district, where Maes was the sous chef. They fell in love and returned to Toronto in 1997.

“We were like, la-la-la-la-la,” says Reid, laughing. “So naïve. I’d been away for two years and we were sure we would just get jobs, everything would be fine, Johan would one day have his own restaurant…”

“Instead,” adds Maes, “we had $700 in a little envelope…”

“And the kindness of friends,” says Reid. “So Johan went back to Belgium and I went back to work for the management consultants.”

Eventually, Maes moved to Toronto and landed jobs in a variety of high-end restaurants while Reid put her academic research skills to work at a documentary film production company, later becoming senior researcher at the CBC Newsworld program, CounterSpin. During that time, they rented in the Annex and then in Leslieville.

But one day a friend brought them to see where her father, who was retiring and moving out of the city, had been living. It was a converted munitions factory in Liberty Village in which, at one time or another, had been home to a speakeasy and some Hell’s Angels who rode their choppers up and down the wide hallways.

“We loved it,” says Reid. “For one thing, it was $400 cheaper than our place in Leslieville. Also, Johan loves that it’s a true loft. I was less committed one way or the other to a loft, but I missed the west end. Besides, there are painters and sculptors and clothing designers living here, and on our floor we know all our neighbours. We can just leave our front door open.”

“We never really talked much about buying a house,” adds Maes. “We didn’t look into mortgages because we never figured we had the credit. Besides, we wanted to invest in the restaurant.”

There are other considerations. Reid is now working part-time at Le Petit Dejeuner while pursuing courses at the U of T. She’s thinking of taking a second masters in international development studies at the University of Guelph.

She recently returned from a month in the Volta region of Ghana as a volunteer with a U.S.-based NGO where she did ethnographic research into the roles of women in the culture. One day she may change careers, and that could mean moving abroad. About renting, Reid and Maes agree. “Society says we should all own a house and have 2.5 kids,” says Reid. “We’ll probably own a place someday…”

“But we’re not in that space right now,” adds Maes.

Nodding, Reid says: “Right now renting allows us to be very flexible. There are lots of exciting things to do at this stage in our lives.”