It has a dynamic wine list, tempting tapas, a popular brunch, cool music, and funky black walls. It’s Burnt Toast Café, a fun new Whitehorse restaurant by Yukoners Katya Schmidt and Christine Kent.
These young women are so vibrant and energetic that I came out of our interview pumped and inspired.
Schmidt and Kent speak with such enthusiasm about their new venture that it’s hard to resist the urge to make changes and take chances too.
But who are they to be so young and brave? Opening a restaurant is an expensive, complicated, and risky project. What gives them the guts to do this?
Well, for one thing, says Schmidt, “you can’t think about it too much – you just do it.”
And they have backup plans, an easy-going attitude, a flexible approach, plus a lot of energy. Their philosophy is that if they can’t do it well, then they don’t want to do it. “It works or it doesn’t work – and it’s not a big deal. You go with the flow.”
It’s important to these friends to have fun with their business, and they rely on each other’s strengths to grow their enterprise. “There’s no point in having a business partner with the same skills!” says Kent.
She’s the tougher one of the two. If sticky issues come up, she’s likely the one to deal with it. She’s assertive, no-nonsense, and gets things done. She’s also creative, with a penchant for food and presentation.
Schmidt is a natural with management, administration, systems, and of course, the financials. She describes herself as the good cop of the two. Also creative and very social, she’s passionate about wine and good food.
Why a restaurant? It’s no secret that this type of enterprise is a difficult one, with a high rate of failure. Surely they must know this, too.
“Yes, but you can’t think like that,” says Kent. “You have to surround yourself with positive people.” They planned for the worst, and it’s been going much better than expected.
Still, “It takes balls to open a restaurant,” as Schmidt puts it. And a lot of money. Or in their case, a lot of support from family and friends. And it doesn’t hurt to have carpenters in the family.
The owners met while waitressing at Giorgio’s Cuccina in Whitehorse, where they worked for several years. They would often joke about what they’d do if they had their own restaurant, and somehow, the banter took on a life of its own.
It became a bit of a dare, a challenge to see which friend would back out first. By mid-October 2010, they both conceded defeat, and the deal was on!
Their first pick for a location turned out to be too expensive, but they found their nest on 2nd Avenue, in the former KEBABery. Or as we long-time Whitehorse dwellers still refer to it, the old Talisman.
They threw themselves into a whirlwind of paperwork, renovations, restaurant furnishings, and hiring staff, all while working full time at Giorgio’s. Remarkably, Burnt Toast opened just a month later.
Originally, it was going to be a breakfast joint. You know, start small. Burnt Toast seemed like a good name for a place like that. But breakfast lacks the glamour, the schmoozing – and most important (I am displaying a lack of objectivity here) – the wine!
Schmidt, the would-be investment banker and recent Finance and Commerce grad from the University of Calgary, envisioned something more than coffee and eggs benny.
In any case, these enterprising women with their sunny smiles don’t strike me as doing anything moderately.
Go big or go home is the impression I got.
Inside, the decor is simple but edgy, and the ambiance is warm and chic. It doesn’t feels like Whitehorse, and at the same time, it does. “Like the city gone Yukon,” they say.
My favourite piece is the large black chalkboard on the wall displaying a generous selection of wine. They rely on staff picks and customer recommendations, and only get four to five bottles of each particular wine at a time.
The selection changes often, and in the future, could include bottles not stocked at the liquor store. Music to my ears!
They hope to appeal to a wide clientele. So far so good – customers include families, professionals, singles, couples, and more.
Schmidt and Kent credit part of this success to their playlist. They believe music can shape a restaurant, so they picked music that would please many and give the place a fun vibe.
They’re used to the pace, to the lifestyle, to pleasing customers. With their experience in the front end aspect of restaurants, it’s the back end organizing that’s the challenge.
Having been in the industry for so long, none of it is a shock, but there is a learning curve.
It’s things like menus – Schmidt and Kent are fixed on consistency and quality, and want to keep menu items affordable and interesting to their customers. They have to consider volume, and how to order ingredients to make them more cost-effective.
At the moment, they have three menus – one for breakfast, one for lunch, and a tapas-style evening list. Plus daily specials.
Their creations are inspired by places they’ve visited, magazines, and personal ideas, and they develop the menus with their head chef, Alex Oberg.
I prodded for their personal favourites. It’s hard to pick, but Kent chose the barley salad, and Schmidt loves the new mussel dish. Customers rave about the pulled pork and the house pastrami.
They take pride in their café and love working for themselves, but admit it’s hard work. They’re up early, and work long hours. “Sometimes we feel like waitresses that grocery shop,” says Schmidt.
Their goal is to grow their restaurant enough to make themselves dispensable. “When your business can run without you,” says Kent, “that’s the point when you pat yourself on the back.”