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How Piano, Piano and The Cheese Boutique grew their companies through collaboration


August 19, 2021
By Dominic Messier

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The Cheese Boutique found another revenue stream through a business that also uses fine cheese. Photo: Dominic Messier.

“Piano” is an instrument which derived its name from the Italian word, “slowly.” Toronto restaurateur and owner of “Piano, Piano” Victor Barry believes that when it comes to the restaurant business slow and steady wins the race. The pandemic tested many in the food industry, but Barry’s ventures remain due to a special partnership.

Afrim Pristine, M’aître Fromagier and owner of The Cheese Boutique discussed the opportunities created by newly-hatched entrepreneurs within the restaurant sector during the pandemic, in a talk sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario at RCShow2021. Pristine shared practical advice on start-up costs and market demand along with Victor Barry. Pairing with The Cheese Boutique to move products was a more than a daring move: it proved beneficial to both companies. Trust is key to getting clients, according to both Pristine and Barry.

Barry said, “This [partnership] is not something that is going to end.” By approaching Pristine, he was able to establish an unorthodox partnership. The duo spoke of ways to create private label products that resonate with customers, boost profits and harness the potential of co-packing and retail distribution.

For companies who are looking to expand their line finding a company with similar ingredients or ethos could be key. After all, what is a pizza without the cheese? Recently, more pizzas have been experimenting with cheese that are not mozzarella, and gourmet clients love it. The Cheese Boutique’s expert fromagiers can recommend a cheese that would complement any topping, and now, Piano Piano is providing frozen pizzas for those who wish to top their own, or just have an excellent gourmet pizza as it is. But does the partnership dilute the revenue stream for either company? Not even close, say Pristine and Barry. 

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“It’s a massive learning lesson for us; we can’t just rely on one stream of revenue as a restaurant,” stated Barry. “Restaurants for the longest time have gotten the rap that they are the hardest businesses to run with the smallest margins. I personally don’t believe that. If you know what you’re doing, I think you can do really well in a restaurant.”

Pristine agreed and added that diversifying offers an opportunity to survive the post-pandemic economy. “The great thing is, I have this entire new revenue source now that we are doing pizzas now.”

Barry agrees.  “The bottom line is really the amount of volume that you can just access,” he said, stating that restaurants are reliant on the amounts of seats it can fill. His small restaurant faced a challenge during the pandemic and had to find other revenue streams. “We don’t have 120 seats at Piano, Piano on Harbord Street… we can’t do more than that; we didn’t do Uber or takeout.” While the restaurant didn’t adopt third party delivery services like UberEats, or virtual kitchens, he decided that diversifying would be a better model for his line of gourmet pizza.  

“I think we’ll focus our minds back on to what it is that we do the most, but we have created an entirely new revenue stream that is here to stay. And that is going to probably make as much — if not more — if it’s done right. In the long run, direct to customer retail will make more money over the long run, if we play our cards correctly and get it through Ontario, or national, or North America. And I never would have done it, if we didn’t talk about it. And if the pandemic didn’t come along.” Added Barry.

Quality speaks for itself, and the average consumer is becoming more discerning in their taste. Pristine’s shop is known for high quality cheese and adding another cheese-related product to his line was not a stretch. Bakers considering approaching a neighbouring business may want to consider discussing complimentary products that highlight flavour, or how their baked good would make a good dessert for a meal, or a bread that would accompany any sandwich. 

Barry said he broke through the noise by saying he was different, if not better than other pizzerias. “We use social media as our channels to get our information out there. And the truth is if you don’t have a large social media following you for whatever product you’re using right now, you gotta beg, borrow and steal: You got to get not be ashamed of asking for everything and reaching out to every possible food blogger.” 

He also advocates looking at the larger picture and plan ahead when it comes to approaching online food bloggers or influencers. “Some people you know will do it for free because they’re super excited about food, the way that you might be excited about food.” Barry added that there is potential in partnerships with third party delivery programs like Uber Eats and Doordash, who also promote your food industry on their sites. “I think that there are some great ways to promote your product, and you have to be willing to suck it up a little bit on the on the finance side in order to get somewhere in the long run.” There had been times when he had to lower the prices of pizza in order to get them in certain stores.

He prefers regular customers over multiple single visit clients. “Take your time to build your biz, and, slowly, slowly (like the name of our restaurant ‘Piano, Piano’) it will build. Make good quality products, because you need people to come back more than once. A lot of times when restaurants open in Toronto, they get great reviews…but it’s just exciting because it’s new. Sure enough, in two years they’re not around anymore. I’d rather slowly, slowly, gain people, and then be huge in a year from now, than be huge now and then nothing.” 

Afrim Pristine is a strong advocate for social media. “we have a pretty good sized following as Cheese Boutique.” Pristine says that one clients see an item, it draws awareness and builds an appetite in a way that advertising can’t reach. “There is an immediacy to want it. So, to use that as a platform, definitely. Whatever Ontario product, I put on Instagram, my sales, I see it directly in my store, and I’m buying more, which is amazing, but I honestly think the awareness I mean like, whether it’s from a retail aspect like myself or Victor who’s manipulating and cheese and creating an amazing dish. We have to be proud of our products, first and foremost, we can’t use local products, just because they’re local that’s bonus. We have to be proud and use …”

Pristine states, “desperate times call for desperate measures, and that doesn’t have to be negative. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade or make pizza. I think that’s what Victor and I have clearly learned from COVID desktop but just let’s figure it out let’s figure it out. Let’s put our thinking caps on. Let’s hustle!” / BJ