Kings of the concept restaurant: Fred and Nick Laliberté

Poutini’s House of Poutine, Hawker Bar, Bobbie Sue’s Mac & Cheese

By Sean Moon

From sleepless nights serving hearty takeout to bleary eyed bar patrons, to travelling the world in a search for new ideas and inspiration, Fred and Nick Laliberté have made their journey in the food world a true family affair. Together, the enterprising brothers have paid their industry dues and are quickly gaining a reputation with foodservice peers and customers alike as “kings of the concept.”

As owners of Hawker Bar, a compact Toronto hotspot dishing out their take on Singaporean street food, Nick and Fred learned through good old fashioned trial and error how to open and run a concept foodservice operation. And with recent expansion into a new mac-and-cheese-themed take-out as well as their original concept in the uniquely Canadian realm of poutine, the Laliberté brothers have begun establishing a track record of success on the Toronto food landscape.

Fred obtained his early industry experience at Dairy Queen at age 15, followed by a degree in restaurant and hotel management and then some work at resorts before serving at restaurants in Toronto. Nick, meanwhile, started as a busboy at East Side Mario’s and was part of a team opening a fine dining restaurant while in university.

“We learned so much from that experience, and really started thinking about how we would open our own restaurants then,” says Nick. “We always enjoyed working in restaurants and the idea of being our own bosses. We quickly learned that when you open your own restaurant, the customers are your bosses, but it’s a fun challenge to work everyday to give them a great experience, even if it’s a poutine at 3 a.m. after the bar.”

Focus on quality

Fred and Nick, originally from Pembroke, Ontario and now living in Toronto, both believe that a common theme to all of their diverse operations is a focus on delivering good quality, homemade food. Fred says that philosophy starts with something as simple as how they prepare the basic ingredients for a decadent poutine.

“We started with a (cheese) curd that we love, we roast our bones for our stock in-house, we thicken our gravy with a roux and we cut our fries by hand, paying close attention to how our potatoes change throughout the season,” says Fred. “It’s also important to constantly be tweaking, for example, our toppings at Poutini’s or our laksa at Hawker Bar. We’re always trying to make them better. We believe in quality not quantity – we’d rather do seven or eight poutine variations really well, rather than 30 mediocre ones.”

Fred adds that while each restaurant has its own flavour and appeal, it’s a commitment to putting out a high-quality product that brings them together.

“Our restaurants are all quite different — Canadian takeout to sit-down Southeast Asian cuisine and now mac-and-cheese takeout,” says Fred. “Poutini’s and Hawker Bar may be very different in concept, but in both we wanted to deliver high-quality food at a fair price, and that philosophy is what unites them.”

When opening their first two concepts, Poutini’s in 2009 and Hawker Bar in 2012, the Lalibertés came up against many roadblocks, from knowing when to hire a proper staff to obtaining a liquor license and trying to open a patio. But by staying flexible and learning to change plans on the fly, the brothers appear to have found a winning formula.

Staff a priority

When asked about the essential ingredients for success in the restaurant industry, Nick and Fred agree that staff and customers should always come first.

“Caring about your staff is so important, about the environment you create for them and for the customer, about the food you make, about where it comes from,” says Fred. “Opening a place that will stay open involves timing, location, quality and luck, and not necessarily in that order. You have to always be improving. We are constantly tweaking our laksa or our processes, and that’s really important. Hawker Bar’s menu has evolved over the last three years and it’s been a fun process.”

“Being a bit flexible is key,” says Nick. “You may have a concept, but the customers will tell you whether it works or not.”

About the author

Sean Moon is the Managing Editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.

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