After growing up in their parents’ diner, Bill and Terry Argo were told to never get into the restaurant business. Thankfully, they didn’t listen.
By Gregory Furgala
The idea behind Symposium, the 28-franchise chain of cafes dotting southern Ontario, is literally painted onto each restaurant’s walls. Raphael’s famous fresco, The School of Athens, serves as the visual focal point for each restaurant. In it, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and a host of classical scholars, thinkers and philosophers congregate and converse. The painting is an allegory for what Bill and Terry Argo had in mind when they opened the first Symposium in 1996. It wouldn’t just be a restaurant; it would be a town square where guests could comfortably gather and discuss theatre and music and politics. Both in name and function it would be a symposium. It would be as much a place to get something to eat as to connect with the person across from you.
The fraternal approach follows the Argo brothers’ upbringing. The two were born into the restaurant industry. As kids, they lived above their parents’ diner, the New Crest Restaurant in Toronto’s Davisville neighbourhood, and watched as their parents put in 70-hours, week in, week out, to support them. As teens, Bill and Terry worked in their uncle’s restaurant in Etobicoke, bussing tables and washing dishes. “Our parents and family were always in the restaurant business,” says Bill. “It’s in our blood.”
The brothers nevertheless left the family business at the urging of their parents: it’s too hard, too unpredictable. “I don’t know how many lectures we got from our parents about us not working in the restaurant business,” says Bill. “They wanted something different for their kids, something comfortable outside the daily grind of hospitality.” Bill, who’s savvy with numbers, went into finance, and Terry found himself in a customer service role in the meat department of a large box store.
Back in Business
After ten years, Bill was bored and Terry’s health was suffering from 70 hour weeks in a meat cooler. And despite their parents’ best efforts, the brothers felt they belonged in the restaurant business. “Terry and I had this powerful desire to be in business with my Father,” says Bill. “It really drove us.”
Along with their youths spent in restaurants, the brothers now counted a decade of bookkeeping and customer service under their belts — they just needed a concept to throw themselves at. Finding it didn’t take long, though. Their uncle ran a successful deli counter in downtown Toronto. It had lineups in the morning and at lunch, and by their uncle was on his way home. It was a workday that suited the brothers just fine, and after running into a three-year brick wall for lack of location and capital, they emulated their uncle’s success with their own deli, Features, which they eventually grew to include six different counters.
And then, again, the brothers got restless. They wanted to get out of the downtown core create something closer to what they had grown up with, where people stayed, chatted, argued. Fortunately, there was a niche to accommodate their ambition. While dessert places were catching on, none of them, the brothers felt, were places that guests wanted to linger. They settled on international music, comfortable chairs and — now a registered trademark — a textured, cracked and fading stonework veneer that turned the classical concept into a visual metaphor. “We wanted it to look 2000 years old,” says Terry, adding that the artwork helped both visually and figuratively affect the feel they were searching for.
Almost immediately, the brothers’ new niche proved popular. Guests were showing up evening after evening to enjoy lattes, cappuccinos and dessert. But the type of runaway success that had driven Features evaded them. “We were lined up every evening but couldn’t get over the top,” says Bill, who was both thankful for, but also lamented, the frustratingly consistent sales. Symposium was in successful stasis for eight years.
The goal was never stasis, though. The goal was to create a chain, so in 2004, the brothers decided to add a full kitchen to their cafe. Symposium’s sales jumped almost immediately, with guests coming in at all hours of the day visit their bustling town square. Franchises soon followed, an iterative process that saw the Argos adapting their formula each time, developing just the right footprint and refining their operations to ensure each franchisee would be confident that their time, effort and investment could be counted on to support them like New Crest Restaurant had supported the Argos.
The Argos now oversee 28 franchises. They found the concept’s ideal layout, and the laboriously-developed “clipboard processes,” the de facto instruction manual to running a successful Symposium, demonstrably work across different markets. They’ve adopted new technology to deal with the higher cost of labour, which they say they’ve weathered well, and rely on software to help them identify where to open next, which will soon take them outside of Ontario.
Despite three decades-worth of changes, however, the values that drove them into hospitality, that have sustained generations of Argos, are still enshrined in the company’s mission statement. And like their parents — and this might just be an Argo thing — the brothers have discouraged their own children from getting into the restaurant game. But like her father and uncle, Terry’s daughter has already rejected their advice — restaurants are in her blood, after all.