Ascari Hospitality Group
sharing a passion for food, wine, and people
Drawing in clients with top tired menus and event options with a taste of class and sophistication
With tourist numbers steadily rising and the restaurant scene in Toronto second to none, Ascari Hospitality Group is leading the hospitality competition with a sophisticated mix of options to cater to even the most discerning of tastes.
Ascari Hospitality Group is a restaurant and event company based in Toronto, Canada. It all began in 2005 when John Sinopoli and Erik Joyal opened their first restaurant, Izakaya, soon followed by three more restaurants, Table 17, Hi-Lo Bar, and Ascari Enoteca. In 2017 Gare de l’Est Brasserie opened, and a few years later, Rahil Hoque joined the company, eventually moving to the role of Partner and COO.
Today Ascari Hospitality Group has three restaurants, Ascari Enoteca, a small neighborhood pasta and wine bar, Gare De l’Est which Hoque describes as “a modern French Brasserie, rooted in simple, done incredibly well,” and Ascari on King, larger than the first Ascari, with daytime service available. They also have a wine and food boutique, Mercatino E Vini which is a brick-and-mortar and online store, and an events and catering division. A new project will see Ascari Hospitality Group partner with Devil’s Glen Ski Club, taking over the food and beverage department.
When Ascari Hospitality’s restaurants first closed during COVID, it was quickly realized that takeout was not an ideal option, as the food was not traveling well. Thinking outside of the takeout container, the company started offering take-home meals that were 90% complete. “You would finish the final 10% of it with John Sinopoli on zoom with you. We would have upwards of one hundred people on a call with corporate partners, or to our client base, we would sell them a full experience that was almost finished, but you still had to do a couple of touches at home,” Hoque elaborates.
“We put together wine kits with a small food component, and then our wine director at the time would go on and do a virtual tasting with you. We were delivering as far as St. Catharines. It really pushed our boundaries. We couldn’t have done that with takeout, our radius would have had to have been two or three kilometers at the most.”
Opening Mercatino E Vini was a whole new concept for the company, as no one had experience with an online shop. Hoque recounts, “We set up a Shopify ecosystem and it was all hands on deck. We all had to learn logistics and operations and supply chain, and we started promoting it to the neighborhood. People would get online, order their bottle of wine and their meal kit and it would arrive at their door a couple of days later.”
Although the company used its existing restaurants to prepare meal kits when the doors were closed to patrons, it became obvious that a long-term solution would be required. “We didn’t want to lose that revenue stream, and we didn’t want to not be engaged with the online community,” he acknowledges. “So, we decided to find a way to maintain the operation and perhaps open a retail store where people could still purchase online, but pick it up in-store, or have it delivered.”
Moving forward, Ascari Hospitality Group is committed to faster fulfillment times for Mercatino, in line with customer expectations. “It’s been more difficult, we’re a small business, and we’ve got several other locations that require lots more attention as well,” Hoque admits. “We try to find a balance by creating a better guest experience.” The current focus is on logistics management, keeping up with demand by staying fully stocked at all times, and getting delivery drivers on the road to get the order to the customer as soon as possible.
On the event side, Hoque reports that Ascari Hospitality has far surpassed 2019 numbers, although there is still room to grow. “Corporate clients aren’t really getting back into the office full time, so there’s that corporate luncheon that we haven’t been able to obtain over the last bit. It certainly helped to have the home delivery and the wedding side, as that is starting to grow a little bit more. We’re focusing the rest of this year on fine-tuning those two operations.”
In terms of putting on the actual event, the company has been utilizing its existing restaurants as venues when it suits. He shares, “We’ve done several weddings now, at Gare De L’Est, and we continue to operate our restaurants as our personal venues. We also have partners. For example, we did a big event at the Globe and Mail, we’ve done events at different venues where we’re the preferred caterer and we come in and ensure that we’re able to meet the client’s needs within the space that they’re also looking for.”
“We’ve expanded the events and catering division by bringing on more staff as well. We have a sales team that solely focuses on delivering proposals and quotes within a matter of 24 hours. We understand that you can go to several other hospitality companies, you can shop around for quotes, and if you don’t get a response back in a timely fashion, you may decide to go with someone else,” Hoque asserts. Taking the opportunity to tweak their service processes has been of benefit to the company, as Hoque notes that it is important that the events and catering experience reflect the quality and service one would experience at an Ascari restaurant. “I think it’s a big advantage, fine-tuning our quality and our approach to service and ensuring that guests’ expectations are of top priority at all times.”
Dealing with supply shortages has been a challenge for Ascari Hospitality Group, but they have been able to rely on valued relationships that have been growing for 15 years. “We had to get really honest and keep the lines of communication clear with our partners so that we could better forecast what was coming down the pipeline,” Hoque explains. Working with suppliers like 100 Kilometer Foods, wine distributors in Niagara, and The Vine, every effort was made to ensure the product would be available on time.
If delays were inevitable, Hoque says the companies kept them informed and offered alternatives. He conveys, “Because they know us personally, they know what we like, they know what we order. It’s not just basing us off the restaurant, but it’s basing us off personal connections and things that we’ve bought over many years.”
The last three years have also brought staffing challenges, something else Ascari has met head-on.
“There are three things at our core that we’re really proud of, and that’s food, wine, and people,” Hoque says, “When we do our recruitment strategy, the first question that we ask is why hospitality? More often than not, we’ll get genuine responses like ‘this is what I love doing, I like making people happy, I like taking care of people.’ Those are the people that we try to bring on because they’re in it because of a true love for hospitality and they won’t be gone in two months or three months.” Frustration with the changing landscape of hospitality is at the core of the problem, and Ascari Hospitality Group is committed to providing an environment where personal and professional growth is fostered. “We practice empathy on a daily basis, and we set realistic expectations that our teammates can meet. That creates a culture and an opportunity for staff to feel safe in the work environment, and it makes us all sort of on the same playing field in terms of relatability. Everyone pulls the rope together, which is a big factor as to why we’ve been able to retain staff over the last little bit.”
Looking to the future Hoque hopes to see an enthusiastic focus on mental health, as the company brings together the senior executive team to work with programs like Not 9 to 5 Organization, and FoodShare Toronto. Offering activities to bring staff together outside of the workday is also on the agenda, providing opportunities for engagement.
“My priority is to find ways of engaging our team and creating more of a mental health program over the course of 2023,” he says. Sustainable growth is also a focus going forward, as Ascari Hospitality Group continues to see success with its five current projects. Hoque expresses, “We’re really trying to focus on what matters to us the most, how we can continue growing in a sustainable way and not way too fast, so that when we take that next step, which is a new project, that all the other businesses are happy, everyone is good, and everyone is structured.”
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AT A GLANCE
Ascari Hospitality Group
What: A company with multiple projects, and a passion for quality food and wine.
Where: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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