Why this Toronto chef-owner is pressing on despite a slump in dining out

“You can only increase prices so much”

(Photograph by Ebti Nabag. Photo illustration by Maclean’s.)

Toronto restaurateur Miheer Shete didn’t let a pandemic stop him from opening an establishment of his own. After 20 years of toiling in other people’s kitchens in Mumbai, Memphis and beyond, the chef launched his own at-home operation, preparing and delivering home-cooked meals at a time when most restaurants were forced to shutter their doors. 

Then, in July of last year, Shete opened Curryish Tavern—a compact but airy restaurant on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West. Running an establishment in the summer of 2023 should have been easy. Ontario’s public health restrictions had ended, the pandemic appeared to be under control, and diners were impatient to return. 

But according to daily data collected by restaurant seating platform OpenTable, Toronto diners have had a lukewarm appetite for dining out this September. While dining was up 18 per cent compared to 2022 over the Labour Day weekend, the data shows that most days in September have been at or below last year’s demand. Over the past few months, Toronto and Edmonton have been the hardest-hit cities in Canada. Discretionary spending is softening thanks to stubbornly high prices and interest rates. 

READ: A lot has changed at restaurants since the pandemic—starting with how much it costs to eat out

On September 19, the day Maclean’s visited Curryish Tavern, OpenTable’s daily dining stats found demand was down three per cent compared to the previous year. That afternoon, Shete himself was tending the bar at Curryish and chatting with two diners. Throughout our conversation, he occasionally broke off to chat with vendors hauling everything from a keg to fruit juices for his inspection.

In spite of the many challenges of keeping a new restaurant together, Shete is undeterred. The restaurant business is gruelling at the best of times, and if there’s anything he’s learned over the course of two decades in the kitchen, it’s the art of balancing everything at once. 

How’s business compared to last year?

Last September was one of our busiest months, with the Toronto International Film Festival. From what I hear, TIFF this year is not as busy as last year. Our first year has been amazing, though. We’ve had a lot of positives, and a lot to learn, and a lot of things that could have been better. 

This year, we’ve had high inflation and high interest rates. Do you think that’s had any effect on the number of diners you’ve seen?

We’re just one year old, so we don’t have too many numbers—but we can feel the trends. Sometimes people come in and they’re not really conscious about what they ordered. “We’re gonna get one of that, that, that and that.” More often, though, people are conscious about how much they spend. But the way I look at it, we went through a pandemic, and high prices are another side effect of a pandemic. 

In restaurants, you just need to put your head down and do the hard work. And the hard work is great hospitality in a place that doesn’t feel compromised. There’s a lot of craziness happening in the world. But when the guest comes into your restaurant, they want to forget all of that stuff. They want to come in for a good time. 

We always talk about how expensive food is for consumers. It’s probably also a lot more expensive for you, too. 

After the pandemic, we were seeing hikes of 15 per cent on food prices. Since Curryish Tavern opened last July, I’ve seen another 10 to 15 per cent hike. So we’re talking almost a 30 per cent increase. For beef, I used to pay $5 a pound. I’m paying $9 a pound right now. 

And those are wholesale prices.

And before any labour has gone into it. 

Have labour costs gone up since you opened? 

Of course. The average hourly wage before the pandemic was around $16 to $18 per hour, but we’ve got to pay more than $20 an hour now. You want to make sure your staff is getting equitable wages. Otherwise, what’s going to happen? You’re not going to get staff to work for you. 

Where does that extra money to pay your staff come from? 

There are two ways. As a restaurant owner, my choice is to either increase prices and have fewer guests come in, or keep my prices stable and maintain a steady pace of customers to get through our current phase—and hopefully prices will lighten up a bit. 

READ: Canada’s best places to eat now

You’ve got to be constantly working with your food suppliers to see which price is best. If I’m looking for chicken, I’ll shop around and see which supplier out of three or four has the lowest prices without compromising its quality. The same goes with everything else: vegetables, wine, beer, things like that. You have to constantly be researching. 

Let’s say you save $20 by switching your chicken suppliers. That’s $20 that can go into somebody’s pocket. 

If suppliers jack up their prices, how does that affect what people are paying to eat out at Curryish Tavern? 

The bottom line is that the money is coming from the restaurant’s pocket. Profit margins are shrinking. For me, there is no other option than to just shrink profits. What’s going to end up happening if I keep raising my prices is that fewer and fewer people will come in. So I’d rather have good, stable pricing. At least we’ll have people coming in, and that will create this whole chain effect. The worst scenario is losing money, but at least you get to employ people and give them hours. 

How about rent? That’s huge for restaurants, probably as much an expense as food.

More than food. Unfortunately, the smaller you are as a company, the more rent you’re paying. In negotiations with landlords, I have less bargaining power. My rent for this year did go up from what I was paying last year. Every landlord will have some kind of increase, every year. But you can’t really go back to your landlord and say: ‘Hey, there’s inflation, can you keep rent the same as it was last year?’

Are there expenses you’re responsible for in regards to maintaining your rental property? 

If something breaks down, I’m the one who’s responsible for it. There are certain things that the landlord does take care of, like structural or roofing issues. 

Do the interest hikes affect you? 

Every business has loans of some kind. My supplier will have a loan. My employees will have some kind of loan: student loan, mortgage, some kind of line of credit. When interest rates go up, it acts like a chain effect.

Let’s say my supplier has a car loan for a delivery van. The payment on that loan was $250. Now, that $250 has gone up to $1,000. Where’s the extra $750 going to come from? Increased prices. I have a student in my kitchen who used to pay $400 per month toward student loans. Now he’s paying $800, so he’s going to ask for a raise. 

READ: The Power List: Top 10 Food Titans

It’s the same with my business. I have a business loan, and it’s increased four times since I opened. My profit margin has shrunk and shrunk. At the same time, I want to make sure I have a very positive work environment. I’m able to pay all my bills. I’m able to pay my staff. And I just want to make sure that even if I don’t make money, I am okay. I just want to get through it so when interest rates go down, I can make up for it. As long as I’m paying all my bills, my debts, my suppliers, my staff—as long as that is done, I’m happy. 

This is a pretty stressful job. How are you able to keep going?

Honestly, you’ve just got to love what you do. That’s a basic formula in life. Yes, it’s stressful, but it’s extremely rewarding as well. For me, as a chef who’s finally opened up a place, I’m living my dream. When I opened, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Someone once told me that if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. 

Almost every chef in this city would love to have their own restaurant. There are some nights when your restaurant is full, your guests are having a great time, and people are telling you how amazing it was as they leave. We, in hospitality, are big suckers for those things. That’s what we do. The most rewarding thing about being a chef is somebody loving whatever you’re putting on their plate. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity 

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