Welcome to One Year In, where Eater sits down with chefs and/or owners of restaurants on the occasion of their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Eater Montreal]
When Zach Macklovitch, 24, and Nathan Gannage, 28, took on the Herculean task to reboot the once-popular Cafeteria at Saint-Laurent and Prince-Arthur, there were more than a few prophets of doom. This was a part of the Main, after all, that had fallen on hard times, ostensibly, thanks to incessant road work and what some privately call flagrant borough mismanagement.
Any naysayers vastly underestimated the duo's ability to connect with clientele as proven nightlife and electronic music promoters. SuWu, the first restaurant in Macklovitch and Gannage's portfolio, has been an unmitigated success and with hip beer garden/arcade/bar 3643 St-Laurent Apt. 200, the duo have a foothold on what many think is a block's inevitable revival.
How did you two first get together?
Zach Macklovitch, owner: We got together about three years ago now when Nathan and I - I was an independent promoter who had just received the contract at Time Supper Club which had just been renovated. Nathan was running Saintwoods - a promotion company based out of the McGill Ghetto that has brought in some of the most talented electronic music acts around the world, from Skrillex to Kid Cudi and back again. So I met Nathan when he did Tent Party, which was this massive festival outside.
Nathan Gannage, owner: We put a big tent in front of the Bell Centre in the parking lot and booked Calvin Harris, Gemini, Adventure Club, a bunch of other people. Time Supper Club was in charge of running the bottle service so Zach was heading that up. We saw some success in the fusion of his clientele at Time and my booking power. We decided to team up on his night at Time and saw enormous success. We did that for about eight months and ended up working at Velvet and New City Gas. That was for about six months. The marketing director at New City Gas was working with A5, one of the biggest bar groups in the city, and brought up the opportunity [of SuWu]. They had a spot [Cafeteria] that wasn't going as well as they wanted it to and we were asked if we wanted to get involved. At this time we had plans to go down to New York and expand Saintwoods. We said sure, kinda, but we didn't want to be too tied down. We weren't going to be the guys opening and closing, counting cash …
Zach: Or cooking.
Nathan: Or cooking! We didn't know what the concept would be. So we met with them, saw the space and talked about it. We saw there was room for something, especially on Saint-Laurent. At the time there was stuff closed down and there wasn't really anything good to eat or just grab a chill drink somewhere on any given day. We wanted to create something for the people that lived and worked around here. I'm not from here, I'm from Toronto, and I've lived in this neighbourhood the whole time and there was never anything that spoke to me.
Zach: I think what's important to mention too is that because we had been looking at New York - we were literally a month and a half away from moving, both of us. I had just graduated university, he had graduated a year before, we had just received some promising business news down there, so we thought maybe we bring a little bit of what we've been seeing in New York, in Toronto, and bring that up here. And I'll give some credit to A5, our partners, in the sense that when they brought us on board, we're not the kind of guys to bend or …
Nathan: We kinda had a vision and we stuck to it. They brought us on board and they said "How about this?" And we were like, "No." "How about this?" "No." And they ended up just trusting us. We literally met them end of January and started construction in February. Within a month of meeting these guys we were full in on this project with them. And they fully trusted our vision and concept. That partnership worked out from the start and it's gone well ever since.
Zach: We also had a good idea of the kind of food we wanted. We took a very objective stance and said, ok, what's going to work in this neighbourhood. What is missing in this neighbourhood?
Nathan: What do we like about the places we visit when we travel? We took a lot of inspiration from outside of Montreal and tried to bring it here. Places that were wildly successful elsewhere but just didn't exist here - at least in this neighbourhood. Just to build a neighbourhood bar with good food and drinks any night of the week. That was the concept.
Talk about some of the challenges you faced when you first opened.
Zach: To be honest, because of our brands before SuWu, there was a lot of excitement when we first opened. We didn't have a lot of trouble filling the place up.
Nathan: In a way that was one of the challenges. Because so many people knew us from our parties and this concept was so different from that, our challenge was to get a crowd that wasn't necessarily familiar with us from before and to gain respect from people who maybe weren't fans of Saintwoods. And just judge SuWu as a standalone concept and not judge it as oh, Saintwoods is opening up a bar. We really tried to keep Saintwoods separate from SuWu.
Zach: And we still do 70 shows a year. We still manage some of the top DJs in the city. We work with different venues, we work with different bands. For us, we wanted to offer a different product and to fill a void in this neighbourhood.
My impression is that the clientele at SuWu skews younger, which probably reflects your backgrounds in club and DJ promotion.
Zach: You're looking at a completely student-driven town, for the most part. If you want to be busy seven nights a week, you can't say no to anyone and you have to be inviting. I think there are really cool 21 year olds, 35 year olds, 55 year olds. What we try to avoid is - we don't want really shitty people in our bar.
Nathan: And too much of one thing is boring too, you know. We like a mix. That New York mentality, you know, where it's a melting pot - different backgrounds, different ages, different styles. That's what we want to try to accomplish. A lot of bars in Montreal are really homogeneous. I find that kind of boring. I want to go to a place where there are different, interesting people. We tried to do the same thing with Apartment 200. No matter what you're into, you can have a good time. We're trying to bring a different approach to the scene.
You had a specific vision for what you wanted SuWu to be. A year in, do you feel like that vision has been realized?
Zach: Well we had this funny thing that happened. We wanted to create an interesting neighbourhood bar that offered good food and then, next thing you know, we're at the top of Urbanspoon and Yelp and all these hottest restaurant lists. It kind of puts you in this position where it's like, ok, now you need to be that good. I'm not saying we weren't expecting to be that good but it definitely set the bar maybe higher than maybe two people who were involved in nightlife and party-planning had ever expected.
It's a different kind of grind.
Zach: It's a different kind of grind for sure. And then you gotta find a different kind of chef and you gotta find managers that are built for that kind of service. And when people come to Montreal and look up 'hottest restaurants' and they see Au Pied de Cochon, us and Schwartz's rotating in the top 3 - which is what it was for the first 6 months - well I'm looking at two serious staples and me and I'm asking how can we keep up with these guys? That to me was one of the greatest challenges - fulfilling the reputation we had made …
Nathan: Well it forced us to, you know …
Zach: Get our shit together.
Nathan: Yeah and be as attentive and on point as possible and not get lazy with it. There is a learning curve and there are struggles but thankfully we've been busy since we opened. Every week there are obstacles - you just keep fixing them and move on and keep plugging away.
Can you get specific about those hurdles?
Nathan: Just a lot of staffing issues. We tried to staff the place based on what we wanted to portray as a look or style. But a lot of them weren't very good workers. So then we'd shift our focus and hire very good workers but maybe they don't fit with the personality of the place.
Zach: I think there's an education that comes with it that's taking time. If you look at some of the critiques we've had - and we've had good reviews and bad reviews, that's just the nature of the business - but sometimes we get complaints like, oh, we didn't get the speed of service that we were expecting. It's more of a casual restaurant that we're trying to create, which is something that Montreal hasn't always done well. I think that a lot of people come here and they either expect Schwartz's, which is fantastic but more like a diner where it doesn't really matter what kind of service you get, or they want white glove service. Well if you go to New York, the fact that your waiter says "Hey man how's it going?" wouldn't offend anyone there but someone in Montreal, they might be like "Hey, what do you mean that's how you're going to say hi to me?" They're not used to that casual dining.
Nathan: It's that 'comprehensive casual.'
Zach: Which is what we go for, comprehensive casual. Yes, maybe you're going to have to ask for the salt but if anything that's part of what we want to integrate - a conviviality, interaction with our staff. Service is important and we want it to be excellent, of course, but we want to create that neighbourhood bar vibe with quality food and good drinks.
Nathan: Dealing with difficult customers is always interesting. You came here with no reservations on a Saturday night at 8 and you couldn't get a table? Or trying to reserve for a group of 20 on a Friday.
Do you find there is a particular kind of clientele here on this block or in this neighbourhood?
Nathan: I find Montreal is interesting in general. It's not very big and there's a lot of entitlement. It's very easy and we're kind of spoiled. There's only a couple of restaurants where you can't get a reservation the day of. It's just not the same market as a New York or a Toronto.
Zach: Honestly, the biggest issue we've had so far has been turnover, even at the higher level of our staffing. I decided to hire all my friends when we opened - and for good or bad it was … interesting.
Are they still friends?
Zach: Some yes, some no, realistically, and I'll forever deal with that but I'm ok with it. I made that choice and we moved forward. It's not as easy to find good help as we thought at the beginning.
Nathan: We expect a lot more out of people. We'll treat our staff amazing but we just want them to work hard at the same time. Not everyone's down with that.
Seems like a pretty simple proposition.
Zach: Yeah! I mean, we throw great staff parties, we …
Nathan: And you can make good money here, it's a pretty good place to work. But we've had a bartender walk out the first day because he had to prep too many limes or something.
How involved were you both with the food and the menu?
Zach: We've now finally found a chef [Jonathan Fournier, late Au Pied de Cochon and Les Enfants Terribles] that we like and is a perfect fit but we've gone through two since we opened. And the whole time me and Nate were working with these chefs it was never "OK we hired you now bring us your menu." It was more like we have a vision for our restaurant and we will work with you as our head chef to create a product that we know will sell. A lot of times chefs will create something that they think is really interesting that A. they can't do at the level they would like or B. that won't sell.
Nathan: We were pretty involved from the beginning. We wanted to do stuff that was inspired by other places we liked to eat at or wasn't available here. Fun, easy, shareable snack food was the concept from the beginning. Some of the stuff on our first menu was a little heavy so we decided to transition and keep all the stuff that sold really well from our comfort food section, which is now our snack menu, but also add some apps and mains. Like I said, there aren't a lot of options for people to eat around here so wanted to create something where people could come back three or four times a week. Now we're open for lunch and brunch and both of those are going extremely well.
How about on the drinks side? Were you both hands-on there as well?
Zach: I'd say equally as involved. In the sense that there's nothing that comes out that we haven't previously spoken about with whoever's putting it out. We're both kind of perfectionists so if there's a drink that's being talked about we'll say it's not spicy enough or doesn't have enough kick. We're very much hands-on in that sense.
A year in at SuWu, I imagine you've both settled into a routine with the day-to-day management of the restaurant, along with those 70 shows you put on a year …
Zach: And Apartment 200 and expansion and all these other things.
Nathan: We have managers here who do an amazing job. They take a lot of the workload off our shoulders. We have meetings with them once a week and deal with issues that come up. We're here every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night and take care of all the marketing for the restaurant …
Zach: All the promotion, all the music. We don't miss that weekly managers' meeting and I think a lot of restaurants make that mistake. They stop doing that for some reason. But for us we get feedback from our managers and our chef about what sold and didn't sell, what we're doing for specials, what private groups may be in the next week and we can bring in any critiques that we've heard from friends or …
Nathan: Or stuff that we saw over the weekend. We definitely let our managers manage but we come together and go over all the points.
Zach: I worked in supperclubs for years and restaurants - I was a bus boy, I was a waiter, I was a bartender - I've done it, you know what I mean? And one thing I always found amazing was the lack of communication between the owners, the management and the kitchen. It was like three islands that never talked to each other, they would just insult each other. Whereas here we're all on the same team, we're all on the same page. And there needs to be a level of accountability. If I see something that's pissing me off, am I going to wait a month? No, the longest I'm going to wait is a week, and even then I don't think I can wait that long.
How do you both find the pace of your weekly schedules with the restaurant and other projects?
Nathan: It's good, you know, it's what we signed up for.
Zach: Nate just moved, like, two blocks from here. My back door opens onto the alley behind SuWu. Our Saintwoods office is on the other side of the parking lot and Apartment 200 is on the other side of Prince-Arthur. And we're looking at opening a new spot on Saint-Laurent sooner rather than later, more geared towards nightlife than dining but that being said, we've invested in this community and this neighbourhood and it needs to be all-encompassing. Otherwise we wouldn't be doing it properly.
Obviously your hearts are set on this area.
Zach: Nate spent his first seven years here and the first club I worked at when I was 15 was across the street. If you look at it that way, we've been here a hell of a long time.
How does SuWu fit in with some of the other restaurants down the street, like Globe and Buonanotte?
Nathan: I think as long as you're doing what you do well, it can all feed off each other. What I don't think the street needs is copycats of existing projects that are doing well. Then it kind of disintegrates into what the street was, you know what I mean? Buonanotte's been there 20 years and they're still packed every weekend. They're obviously doing something right. But we want to welcome more clothing shops, more cafés, more restaurants, more bars, whatever it is. It's the main artery of Montreal, it still has more foot traffic than any street in the city. We just want to bring some action.
Zach: I don't think if another restaurant opens close to SuWu it's going to empty out SuWu. They'll feed off each other.
Nathan: They'll feed off each other and generate more buzz.
Zach: We need to revive people's interest in coming out to the Main again. Whether it's here or at a place like Majestique or Maïs … these are cool spots and when they're doing well it means that I'm doing well. If I have a good weekend, they have a good weekend. I want to see more traffic, more people coming to this neighbourhood because knock on wood, SuWu's here to stay.