After 30 years in the kosher restaurant business, Shlomo Esses, 51, is still looking forward.
Owner of Dairy Treats in North York, Café Sheli in Thornhill and Bistro Grande on Eglinton Avenue West, Esses previously owned Miami Grill in Thornhill and the downtown Oasis Café.
He opened Dairy Treats 30 years ago with his wife, Miriam, as a small café serving pastries and coffee so kosher consumers could have a light meal.
“Within five years, we expanded our menu to include salads, sandwiches and pizzas, and took over the space next door. We weren’t just serving kosher patrons, we were a go-to restaurant for people in the area.
“In our first year of business, we handed out 3,000 chocolate chip cookies at the [UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Walk for Israel.] We went out into the community, and people got to know us.”
As a young and aggressive businessperson, he said, he was a pioneer in the school catering business, serving Associated Hebrew Schools, Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, and Eitz Chaim.
He cites high rent as the reason he closed Miami Grill, which operated in Thornhill for 15 years, and Oasis Café, which was open for 16 years. “Oasis Café, was more of a fast-food restaurant, and we’re actively looking for a downtown location to replace it.”
Esses is also getting in on the frozen yogurt craze, with Yogibar, in a storefront at the Spring Farm Plaza in Thornhill. “We offer cholov Yisroel yogurt, and it has become quite a hit.”
Always looking for new opportunities, he said his dream is to invest in Israel. “I spent 10 years trying to purchase Burger Ranch, a chain of 80 stores, but the deal fell through. I was born in Israel, and I would love to have a business there.”
His business is a family affair, he said. “My wife worked with me for seven years and now helps out, my children [he has a son and a daughter] have worked in the summer, and my father, Albert, has worked so I can be in different places.”
The restaurant business is harder now than it was even a decade ago, he said, because of the competition. “Kosher restaurants are even harder to keep profitable because of the calendar year. We’re closed Friday nights, Saturdays, and all Jewish holidays. That’s a good chunk of the year that we’re not doing business. It’s difficult to pay rent when you’re closed one-third of the year.”
As well, he said, kosher food is much more available than it was years ago. “That makes for more competition.”
His restaurants are profitable, he said, because he has limited expenses, and has always been innovative and open to change.
“My original intention for Dairy Treats was to serve coffee and croissants, but the people wanted more. I listened to them then, and I listen to them now. The challenge is to give them what they want and, at the same time, give them what they don’t have.”
The restaurant business is in his blood, he said. “I love the interaction with people, the challenge of being busy, and I get a rush whenever I see a lineup. Most importantly, I love food.”