As one of the city’s great culinary treasures, Barberian’s Steak House isn’t just the oldest licensed white tablecloth restaurant (circa 1959), but also houses the largest of wines in the country. When Arron Barberian and his father, Harry, bought back their business in 1994, they were greeted with a general, 60-bottle wine list (and nothing greater than 5 years old. A shocker for those familiar with the Elm Street institution).
Determined to restore the iconic restaurant to its former glory (and then some), Barberian’s wine list – the largest in Canada – now sits at 4,000 selections, with nearly 40,000 bottles in inventory. If you were to order a single bottle of every item on the list, it would cash in at a whopping $3 million dollars.*
For more about the impressive wine cellar, please check out the annotated piece I wrote for Toronto Life earlier this month.
However, equally, if not more, impressive is the story behind the cellar and man who built it.
Below, find the transcripts from various parts of our 1.5 hour discussion. We spoke everything from the technicalities of building a cellar of this magnitude, Barberian’s motivations, how the restaurant might have been ground zero for the Fernet explosion in Toronto, the importance of family, to the many charitable organizations and community boards he sits in. So many nuggets of wisdom.
Barberian might have been called the ‘crazy bat dude‘ or been in the news recently for taking the law into his own hands with a mugger, but to me he’s an impassioned man who uses his talents and social position to make a difference. He also does it generously, without directly drawing attention to himself. I respect that.
Plus he’s pretty cool.
*Also, if you were to need help imbibing in all that wine, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I have a surprisingly great tolerance for an Asian.
My annotated look into Barberian’s wine cellar for TorontoLife: Inside Barberian’s subterranean wine vault, the best-stocked cellar in Canada
Gallery: Barberian’s way impressive cellar
Arron Barberian: In His Own Words
On how the wine cellar came to be:
I think part of the reason Barberian’s can invest this much money in wines is because we own our own real estate. I don’t run the risk that other people do when their lease is near its end, that you don’t have a restaurant any more. So there’s only so much somebody can invest in a space that they don’t actually own. That was a great move. My father, Harry, who never finished the seventh grade opened this restaurant when he was 29-years-old, he always believed in buying your own real estate. It’s proving to be a very wise decision. Why pay rent, when you can pay a mortgage? I always encourage people to buy their own property.
So when we got the chance to buy back Barberian’s, we grew the wine list to the significant size now.
Blame Barberian’s for the rise of Fernet (blech!), well, maybe:
We’ve got a great program right now. Because we’ve built this massive wine cellar, many of Canada’s top sommeliers like being around these wines, so we’ve got a guest sommelier program. This was [co-manager] Pasquale Orgera’s idea. That’s got sommeliers to come in to eat and drink wines in this restaurant they’ve only heard of. So we’ve had a couple of the world’s top 20 come here: Will Predhomme, Jennifer Huether, Bruce Wallner, Peter Boyd, Corey from St. George’s Golf Course, Véronique Rivest (second in the world). We get them to crank open wines (we let them open just about any). We’ve been big promoters of the industry in general: we do these Fernet About It on Sunday nights in the summer. For $50 people in the industry can come and have a 3-course meal and as much wine and booze as they can drink. And Fernet.
[Pat Orgera: Have you had Fernet? RS: Yes, I have. PO: Do you like it?
RS: I apparently have a large density of taste buds which means that it tastes really bad. Haha!]
Well that’s why I drink Fernet Menta, a mint flavoured Fernet. It’s not regular Fernet – an acquired taste.
It’s the world’s number one thing to have, and the reason it’s the thing to have is because we’ve been having it at industry nights for two years here. And all these sommeliers, restaurateurs and chefs and guest chefs come in to cook.
Those wines. Oh, those wines:
I’d like to see many more restaurants – I’m disappointed whenever I go out to dine – that you can’t find a deep list. Guys that are doing an amazing job – you’ve got to give Opus credit for their list, Le Select for years had a great dedication to the list – I just don’t think many people are willing to do what we did. Again it comes back to the idea that we own this, there’s no out date, no end of a lease. I’ve heard that the list is spectacular out in Via Allegro. There are a few restaurants have dedicated themselves, but to find a list that exceeds a thousand selections in Toronto, it’s just not there.
RS: And yours…?
About 4000. Everything’s for sale. We just put our ’05 Burgundies on the list now because they’re ready to drink. There are some wines of extreme pricing, some of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti which are worth $25-35K a bottle. We have them. They’re stashed; they’re available.
I love when people say, ‘Well I don’t see that.’ Yeah, we do. Just give me a moment to go find it because there are secret menus at some restaurants, and there are secret wine lists.
The other thing that changed the restaurant industry is BYOW. We do that. $40. Which is the mean contribution of profit of a bottle of wine, if we take wine by the glass, yes we sell bottles at $400, but the average consumer is comfortable with bottles up to $120 a bottle. That’s really Toronto’s general comfort zone. [It’s] a little higher down in Financial District. So we took the mean number, which we figured is $40. I really don’t care at that point to the bottom line if you bring your own. But I do think it’s negatively affects a restaurant’s desire to have a large list because of that.
[Bob Bermann (manager at Barberian’s): We do it as a service rather than for a customer to “beat the house,” because we do have people who would buy a cheap bottle at the LCBO and pay corkage – you do yourself a disservice because we have wines in the $60-70 range which would give you greater value. So this is more a service for people who have taken the time, the effort, and expense to purchase and cellar a wine that has emotional or other significance to them.]
Yeah, beating the house – this is a restaurant you want to go to: you’ve booked the table, you’ve done all that, and you somehow want them to make less profit, or go out of business… I don’t know what the goal is. And here’s the other thing, when you drink a bottle of wine at my restaurant and it’s not a perfect bottle of wine, we replace it right then and there. It could be corked or flaws or more than that where it could be imperfect – we replace it. You bring your own, and you take that risk.
[BB: It’s give and take. If you bring that enthusiasm and respect to a restaurant, it’ll be returned in kind… if you involve the house, it will enhance your enjoyment of the wine. When people bring wine here, we celebrate their bottle, even though we have nine vintages of it here…It’s give and take. If you bring that enthusiasm and respect to a restaurant, it’ll be returned in kind… if you involve the house, it will enhance your enjoyment of the wine. When people bring wine here, we celebrate their bottle, even though we have nine vintages of it here…]
… and vintages that are ready to drink.
We have three sommeliers who finished in the top 20 in the world – I would defy you to find me a 3 star, that in their cadre of somms that have three top 20 somms.
[BB: It’s not only the people buying the big wines, the sommeliers are very professional and they give the person ordering house wine a proper wine [experience]. This is something people don’t expect.]
And that’s why sommeliers matter. That’s why you leave it to the pros.
People trust their chef to pick their fish, to pick their food on their plate, but when it comes to wine, we somehow turn it over to the consumer and say “you’re on your own.” The wine is an integral part of the meal for me, and I think letting a professional guide that part is important. You made the decision to go to the restaurant, trust the vision of the restaurateur which includes his sommelier and their selections.
But we also like to do things bigger and better.
I think there’s an old Chinese proverb that goes ‘The tighter your squeeze, the less you’ve got in your hand.’ I go deeper into a vision than other restaurants would.
Barberian’s over the years: the cost to run a business, value propositions, and the amateur critics:
The one thing we do take very personally is unfair criticism: the fact that amateur bloggers have some sort of power over our small businesses. I think if you’re going to write a negative review, you have to put your name to it. I like the old days where you wrote a letter to the editor, the name of the person was attached to the letter. There was no anonymity.
So we recently had a few reviews – and this is what drives me crazy – “I loved everything, but it’s too expensive.” Well people have no concept on what it costs to run a white tablecloth, downtown business. I think Toronto is the cheapest city in the world to eat in. They should travel a little bit, see what it’s like in Chicago, New York or Boston, where, by the way, waiters get only paid $2 an hour with wages and expenses. There’s never been a smaller profit margin than there is today. It’s unfair.
That’s one thing that should be on these websites ranked very low: the value proposition because the price of the meal is posted outside of most restaurants. There’s a menu box. You know going it exactly what it’s going to cost. It’s a fair criticism to “we were going to go to Barberian’s, but when we looked at the price, we decided not to go there.”
… That’s the magic point when people get upset. It’s $100 a person.
One of my customers gave me a pair of Raptors tickets. The face price on these Raptors tickets is $1735 a piece. Now I’m not saying that’s a normal thing,…
…but look at experiences and what it costs to even go to anything to do anything and what people pay for stuff. We have a high failure rate in this business and part of it is because we don’t charge enough. There’s a race to the bottom for restaurateurs.
Have you seen the price of casual burger dining in Toronto?
But here you’re getting a cooked over charcoal steak, a great story, served on white tablecloth by an experienced waiter, and it’s $100 a person and it’s a problem. The value proposition, you know that going in. [RS: That’s the frustrating part.] Yeah, it’s not a surprise.
Getting back to economics of a restaurant, I think it’s somewhere around $11.50 for every person sitting at every table when you add our property tax, our insurance, all the fixed costs – the laundry which is $1.32 per person when it’s all said and done, when you add it all up, it’s just under $12 when you sit down and order nothing. So the profit doesn’t come into play until later on. So that’s why I built the big wine cellar. Because the only way I can drive top line growth, was this idea: when you go to a restaurant, you’re only going to order one entrée, no matter what. With an appetizer and dessert, you’d only get to that point – that point doesn’t pay the bills. There’s no profit.
Wine – there’s a chance you could be sitting at my restaurant with a wine that’s worth as much as $5000 a glass. Now I’ve cellared this, I’ve taken the risk. If it’s a bad bottle, I’ll take that back. There’s a high differential on the beverage/alcohol side. There’ s only so much people will pay for a vodka martini or whatever. That’s the only way I can drive top line growth.
Point is: this is the way I wish more restaurants were. I like restaurants where the restauranteur puts his name on the door. The places with one syllable names have no personality. Sign your work. If you’re proud of your work, you sign your work. Put your name on the door. At Barberian’s no one employee is more important than another. If I can’t trust you to make decisions, than why are you working here? Everyone’s empowered to make decisions, like when Ford motor company put those buttons on the line and anybody can stop the line from the most junior person if you saw something wrong. I love when people take ownership.
Barberian’s legacy and why it remains an important part of Toronto’s culinary scene:
We get criticized on Trip Advisor, Yelp and Urban Spoon because we are old. Because it’s an old restaurant and people don’t get it.
They don’t get that when travel to a city, the first thing you should ask is what is the city famous for? Where are the restaurants that stood the test of time?
And once you’ve been grounded in the great restaurant of a city, then I think it’s perfectly acceptable to try all the new, hot, hip restaurants.
RS: Because then you know where the base foundation and roots are…
For example, Scaramouche is still my favourite restaurant, and if you look at those guys that come though the Scaramouche program it’s significant. But if you’ve never been to Scaramouche, you can never understand where Jamie Kennedy, Chris MacDonald and all the other chefs came from, and what they’ve gone on to be. So that’s why I think that when you travel you’ve got to go to these places first.
RS: Is that why, over the years, you could have changed Barberian’s, but you kept it the way it is?
No, we wanted to stay true to it. I just didn’t want to change too much.
The thing about Barberian’s is that is an homage to a really great man – my father. I really believe in family and respect.
I’ve got some employees that are legacy employees. We have many waiters here, I think 5 waiters that have been in excess of 30 years each with my family. The old pros. (Some of them have kids that have gone to medical school or a law degree… Angelo’s been here 24 years and he’s one of our junior waiters. We’ve got part timers for 12 years in, and 20 year busboys. When Steve Rigakos retired as chef, I gave him a gold watch and cried, because he retired at 70, he started working with us at 30. He gave us more than half his life. Steve’s a great guy and I miss him not being around.) There’s 200 years of experience with five guys.
We slowly changed things to be more contemporary, that’s where we get more civically involved. We spend a lot of time with charities. We’re heavily involved with Bloorview, Childhood Cancer Canada; we close Barberian’s on May 5th every year in memory of my late dad – that was his birthday. We’ve raised $300-thousand dollars to date for the Otorhinolaryngology (throat cancer) department at Mount Sinai Hospital – we have a bursary fund that funds young doctors to come here and learn about that.
When my father was 51-years old he contracted throat cancer; at the age of 56, he had his throat removed. He used to burp speak.
Jay’s Care Foundation – our son has cerebral palsy, he lives his life in a wheelchair, so there’s a lot of children’s charities we donate to.
We give a majority, if not all, of the profits at Barberian’s to charity. We actually give away more than we earn.
RS: And that’s because you have…
… that dedication to community. And I think that also comes back, because many of the charities we’re involved with have high net worth Bay Street types, and if we stay current in their minds… that’s one of the forms of marketing I do by getting involved in charity events. I let other people tell my story. That’s a good way to give back. With all due respect to everyone who owns a marketing company or an ad agency. It’s not really about that first, but it doesn’t hurt when people recognize that.