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Toptable to take bite out of Big Apple

Vancouver restaurant group to open space in New York
Michael Doyle, Toptable’s president and the president of Aquilini Live Entertainment & Hospitality, said the company’s Manhattan restaurant will be open early next year | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Michael Doyle understands it sounds a bit audacious, and maybe a bit crazy. But sometime in early 2019, Vancouver’s Toptable Group, which runs restaurants such as CinCin and the Blue Water Cafe, will open a seafood-themed restaurant in the heart of Manhattan.

“Everyone says when we’re going to New York, the first question is ‘Why?’” Said Doyle, who is Toptable’s president and also the president of Aquilini Live Entertainment & Hospitality. “I can appreciate that. The ambition comes from the passion that everyone on the team has for the restaurant business.”

The Aquilini Group and Canucks Sports & Entertainment bought Toptable Group from Jack Evrensel in 2014, and set about revamping its food and beverage services at Rogers Arena for Canucks games and live events. Now Toptable Group has its sights on one of the world’s most fiercely competitive restaurant markets in Manhattan. The New York enclave has an estimated 24,000 eateries within a borough that encompasses roughly 60 square kilometres and houses close to two million people. Various reports peg New York’s restaurant failure rate as high as 80% within the first year alone.

Doyle said after the Aquilini Group purchased Toptable, he set up a meeting in New York with Danny Meyer, one of the city’s most famous restaurateurs. He said this was the first move toward taking Toptable into North America’s largest city.

“New York is absolutely the restaurant Mecca of the world,” Doyle said. “In Manhattan, you have all different types of food from all over the world, so it’s a real melting pot.”

Toptable worked with a New York team to secure a location and found a spot in Union Square, north of Lower Manhattan and south of Midtown. Toptable bought the former site of a steakhouse and stripped the building to start from scratch. The company has hired the Rockwell Group, a New York architecture and design firm, to lay out the space, and has signed a 25-year lease. Doyle noted there is a new Facebook (Nasdaq:FB) office a few blocks from the site of the new restaurant.

He said staff for the restaurant, including the chef, will all probably be hired locally. The Vancouver restaurant group also has plans to open spaces in Toronto and Victoria, and recently opened Il Caminetto in Whistler Village.

“I don’t think there will be one thing that will make or break us,” said Doyle of the company’s U.S. venture. “But I do know if we can make it in New York, we can make it anywhere else.”

Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant & Food Services Association, said a Vancouver company looking to expanding into New York, and not the other way around, speaks volumes about the local culinary scene.

“If you think about the U.S. chains that have tried to make it in [Vancouver], it doesn’t usually work,” he said. “They never really got a foothold here. If you think of the companies in Canada, like the Keg and Milestones and White Spot, they’ve developed their concepts and moved east. We’re really good at hatching things here from a concept restaurant perspective.”

According to the U.S.-based National Restaurant Association, the American market is worth $799 billion annually and employs 10% of the country’s labour force. The study also estimates an additional 1.7 million jobs will be created within the restaurant industry in the U.S. by 2027.