Local Restaurateurs Always Creative, Fearless

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Windsor Star/Grace Macaluso

A long-time warrior in  Windsor’s fiercely competitive restaurant sector, Mat Mathias looked to the city’s history for inspiration.

After reading an article on Windsor’s early days, Mathias learned that its founding fathers put the name of their brand new city to a vote. Among the list of suggestions on the ballot: South Detroit.

While it lost to Windsor, South Detroit serves as the name and theme of Mathias’ latest entry in the city’s culinary battleground. “Our goal is to be unique,” said Mathias, who, along with partners Seth Perera, Scott Stevens and Scott D’Amore also run Chanosos — a successful eatery housed in the same building as South Detroit.

Originality, creativity, strong work ethic and fearlessness are among the traits that define the entrepreneurial spirit driving the restaurant sector in Windsor and Essex County, said Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association.

Despite the local economy’s  ups and downs, the entrepreneurial spirit in Windsor-Essex is thriving, said Elenis. “For a city that has been impacted by many, many hurdles — and the barriers are out there — it has a breed that keeps growing restaurants,” Elenis said. “I  really congratulate them. It’s not an easy industry, but there’s a breed out there that does it, and thanks to Windsorites for supporting it.”

Take a stroll along Ouellette Avenue, and you’ll find a string of restaurants, including some which opened their doors recently, that feature a unique slate of menu items.

“You can’t be another burger joint,” said Yervant Lakhoian, co-owner of Frenchy’s Poutinerie and more recently, Toasty’s Grilled Cheese and Salad Bar.

Both restaurants, just a couple of doors down from each other on Ouellette Avenue,  offer a menu centered around one item.  At Frenchy’s it’s poutine; at Toasty’s it’s grilled cheese paninis.  And the approach appears to be working, said Lakhoian. The success of Frenchy’s which opened its doors in the summer of 2010, helped finance Toasty’s, which opened in July, he said.

“You need to think outside the box if you want people to come to you,” he explained. “There’s hamburger places left and right; there’s Shawarma places up and down the street. So, if there’s a poutinerie, people might be more inclined to go there.

“It’s about giving people another option. And a new and exciting idea can draw them there.”

At South Detroit, the decor is reminiscent of the prohibition era, evoking Windsor-Detroit’s rum running days, said Mathias.

The menu pays tribute to favourite haunts and well-known markers within the two cities. “It the best of Windsor and Detroit and our spin on it,” he said.

There’s the Greektown Salad, the E.C.Row Trio, The Ambassador and an entre named after legendary diner owner, Louis Elias. “It’s a tribute to him,” said Mathias.

Adriano Ciotoli, of WindsorEats.com, said  South Detroit and Frenchy’s  represent a new generation of restaurants that distinguish themselves by finding a niche market while catering to a more education and demanding consumer.

“There’s been a change happening that coincided with the economic downturn,” said Ciotoli.  “Fine dining was essentially wiped out.”

Today’s restaurant patrons want “casual fare with a fine dining touch and diner prices.”

The restaurant sector has grown healthier thanks to a growing number of quality eateries, that have managed to weather tough economic times, Ciotoli added.

He pointed to Mazaar Restaurant, a Lebanese eatery “dedicated to quality ingredients. At a time when other restaurants were closing their doors, Mazaar expanded.”

Lakhoian is also looking to expand, although he’s keeping any details to himself. What he will share is his view on what it takes to succeed as a restaurant entrepreneur.

“You can’t be afraid of work and you have to know you’re going to be working around the clock,” he said. “You are working sometimes for nothing, sometimes you’re working for a little bit, sometimes you’re working for a lot.  You have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot of time because there’s so many family things we miss, But you have to take care of the businesses.”