Mark McEwan tells Mediaplanet about his start in the restaurant industry, supporting local, how his business pivoted to keep up with the new normal, and more.
What sparked your passion for food and can you tell us a little bit about how you got into the food industry?
One of the first jobs that I had when I was 16 was in a restaurant in Buffalo, New York called Mindy’s Wine Cellar where I was the dishwasher making $1.60 an hour. I took the job because I needed to put gas in my car, but they ended up bringing me into the kitchen for a very short period of time.
So, at a very young age, I saw the inner workings of a restaurant and I found it to be such a pleasurable place to be. It was my first time in the back of a restaurant and I got to experience good food being cooked, interesting clients, and interesting drinks coming off the bar – I found it to be really great.
After that, I continued to work in restaurants while I was at school, but I said to myself one day, “Why don’t I just take a year off and book into a hotel, start an apprenticeship program, and see if I like it. If after a year I decide I want to go back to hotel school, I’ll be better off for it anyway because I’ll have a bit of kitchen experience.”
And I got involved and never looked back. I found myself immersed in it. I loved it. I was built for pressure and speed, which are qualities that make for a good chef in the beginning stages.
What is a highlight of your culinary career?
I’ve met a lot of celebrities over the years – I’ve had the opportunity through various jobs, working in hotels, and taking care of people. My dad was a very good singer, kind of Tony Bennett-esque. I remember one time in an elevator at the Sutton Place Hotel coming down from Stop 33, which was our banquet room at the top of the hotel, and Tony Bennett walked in as the elevator doors opened. I told him that my father raised us listening to him and that it was a real pleasure meeting him. He was a very nice man.
COVID-19 has forced many of us to stay at home, which in turn has changed the way we grocery shop. Where do you see the future of grocery headed?
We’ve gone heavily into e-commerce and home delivery. You can call up McEwan Fine Foods or connect with us online for same-day delivery. We’re doing 50-60 deliveries a day and business is growing. COVID-19 definitely accelerated this.
However, I see growing online and e-commerce as a big part of our future and a category of business that’s going to grow more. It won’t go away after COVID-19 goes.
There was a bit of a silver lining for us in our retail business. On the other hand, for our restaurant business, we’ve gotten our front teeth kicked out due to COVID-19, but they’ll grow back.
Why is supporting local so important during this time?
All of our local independent businesses need support. If you have the ability to support a business like a local restaurant that you love, there are many different ways to support them – buying their meals curbside, buying a gift certificate for when they open back up, and more.
When I’m staying at my home in Thornbury, I’ll buy food from other restaurants curbside. I’ll shop at the local grocery store to support the local community. I’ll go to the local meat counter, even though I have my own meat counters. I believe I have an obligation to do that.
Not being able to go to your local butcher, fishmonger, or cheese supplier would be really sad. That’s why we need to support these businesses. The whole aspect of the food retail business that intrigued me was the European standard. In Paris or Frankfurt, the local markets are exceptionally good. It’s an absolute treat to shop local and see all the beautiful food, which is why I always try my best to support local.
How has the pandemic forced your business to pivot?
The pandemic has forced my business to pivot in a whole bunch of ways. Thankfully, I had the retail category of my business, but a lot of restaurant companies don’t. We focused a lot of our efforts on growing our retail business through e-commerce, home delivery, and more. We’ve also broadened our offerings and have worked hard to make them diverse and interesting for our clients.
We also have other chefs’ products that we bring into our store, which I believe is a great way to support other chefs during the pandemic. That’s initially why we brought product in. I knew these chefs were selling these products, so we thought, why not? We’ll bring this diversity in our store and sell food like Anthony Walsh’s empanadas and Libretto’s pizza. The clients loved it.
McEwan Fine Foods recently partnered with INABUGGY to launch a 3D Virtual Shopping Portal — a first of its kind in Canada. The innovative shopping portal has enabled customers to visually shop for groceries from home, enhancing engagement and convenience for McEwan Fine Foods shoppers and beyond, especially during the pandemic.
If the pandemic didn’t happen, I don’t know if we would have thought of doing that. It certainly opens your eyes and broadens your imagination as to what you might need to do to survive. You can’t be complacent. You have to keep reinventing.