Jarvis: ‘You’ve made the city cool’

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis

At heart, he’s a guy who loves food. After all, he’s Italian.

But Adriano Ciotoli has managed to parlay his appetite into a successful and award-winning business promoting local food. More than that, he’s changing Windsor’s sensibilities – and its image.

It was a long, hard slog when Ciotoli started WindsorEats, a website with a directory of local, independent restaurants, 10 years ago. The chains were king here – East Side Mario’s, Applebee’s, The Keg. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, adds Ciotoli, who wanted to be a chef before a kitchen accident. They have loyal clientele.

But there were a lot of delectable independent restaurants, too. The sheer diversity of cuisine in a city this size made the eateries here singular, he says.

“We thought it was an opportunity to showcase what’s unique about Windsor,” he said.

And if customers shifted some of their money to local food and local businesses, well, that would be better for the whole community, he figured.

But it was a cultural shift.

“We kept hearing from people, ‘Why don’t you have big chains? That’s where I want to go.'”

His family thought he was crazy.

“My mom would say, ‘When are you going to get a job?'” he laughed. At 34, he’s a big guy with a big laugh, incurably cheery.

He saved money from his seasonal job at the city, where he coordinated facilities and special events and worked as an attendant at the College Avenue Community Centre and South Windsor Arena.

In the beginning, several hundred people a week visited his website. He showed the numbers to other restaurants to get them to join.

Now, he gets 25,000 users a month.

“Pretty impressive for a niche market in a smaller area,” he says.

There are more than 60 different categories of restaurants, from chicken wings to Salvadoran, Balkan, cocktail bars and all-day breakfast on the directory. There are beverages, sorted by wineries, breweries, coffee roaster and juices. There are even farms and culinary stores – bakeries, butchers, cookware.

Then Ciotoli added cycling trips to wineries and breweries and walking tours in historic neighbourhoods, with stops for drinks, of course. This, in a city that never used to spend its budget for bike lanes.

The rides to wineries, leisurely trips along the coast of Lake Erie, end with a meal featuring local food at a long table under a white tent at the edge of a vineyard. The idea for the group meal came from a trip to Italy, where the slow food movement started.

There are different versions for different types of clients – Cycle and Snore for weekend getaways that include a night at a bed and Breakfast, rides for birthday, bachelorette and bridal parties, corporate excursions.

For the first three years, every ride sold out. Almost half the participants are from out of town. About 20 per cent of them stay overnight. Ciotoli calculates that each ride generates about $10,000 for the region.

The Bikes and Beers tours take riders to local breweries and pubs to taste craft beers and unique imports. Ciotoli also helped launch the Windsor Craft Beer Festival.

His walking tours expanded to feature Windsor’s history. His History Over Pints tour in Olde Sandwich highlighted the War of 1812, heritage buildings and folklore – with attitude. “Learn all about …the badass that was General Brock,” it advertised.

The Drinks of Walkerville tour does the same in Old Walkerville, adding visits to the Canadian Club Brand Centre, Walkerville Brewery and The Willistead Restaurant for tastings. There’s also a lesson on Prohibition and rum running.

Ciotoli has also arranged cooking demonstrations, including how to “pull a proper espresso,” city-wide, week-long restaurant promotions called Winter Bites and Eat Your City Restaurant Week, and a series of events called Truckin’ Good Food to promote food trucks. He also writes a culinary blog featuring news like Motor Burger’s Deux Chevaux being named one of the 10 best burgers in Ontario by the men’s lifestyle website Thrillist.

Five years ago, Ciotoli took on a partner, his sister Pina.

“That’s when I knew I was going to make it,” he said, “when I was able to expand, when someone was willing to take a chance on it.”

And finally, three years ago, he quit his day job. It took him more than a year to decide.

“It’s scary,” he said. “You’re leaving that guaranteed paycheque, that safety net,” he said.

But he has never regretted it.

Ciotoli and WindsorEats have won numerous culinary and tourism awards, including Innovator of the Year by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. Drinks of Walkerville was named an Ontario Signature Experience by the Tourism Marketing Partnership last month. (Two undercover judges went on the tour to test it.)

A decade later, there has been a sea change in Windsor’s sensibilities.

“There has definitely been a shift,” agrees Ciotoli, who ran in Ward 4 in the municipal election in October. “People are really starting to appreciate what we have to offer. We really have it all. Niagara has wine. We have wine, distilleries, craft beer; we have every angle of alcohol covered. Plus the longest growing season and ethnic food.”

And there’s this: “You’ve made the city cool,” a customer told him.