Colette Grand Cafe is a restaurant that never sleeps.
Located in Toronto’s King West neighborhood, it’s part of the Thompson Hotel and caters to locals and visitors alike. The restaurant has also found a way to become a solution for almost every imaginable dining experience: the quick croissant and latte you grab on the way to work, the business lunch, and the decadent Sunday brunch. It’s also a favorite for bridal parties and birthdays, and runs a massive catering operation. And it’s the ultimate date spot on a Saturday night.
The logistics of running so many different micro-businesses in one are complex and impressive, especially considering the acclaim and success Colette has enjoyed since opening last summer. We talked to Executive Chef Amira Becarevic to find out how it’s done, piece by piece.
The Grand Cafe is the heart and hub of Colette, open all day, every day of the week. The dining room is light, bright and airy, with a feminine aesthetic that makes it look inviting. And though the menu is traditionally French, you won’t see many of the hearty, rustic dishes that characterize most bistros and brasseries. Instead, dishes are fresh and light, with plenty of seafood and, especially this time of year, local vegetables.
“We wanted to provide an experience that’s healthful and refreshing, and somewhere you would be happy to come, even twice to three times a week,” says Amira. “Most of the menu is sourced locally — there is even sometimes a Quebecois or Canadian twist that we incorporate.”
The cafe serves lunch Monday through Friday, brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and dinner every night. In total, about 30 people work in the back of house, and people in the savory kitchen move around a lot, Amira says. She has a receiver who handles bread deliveries and also occasionally works the omelette station at brunch. “Everyone kind of pitches in and does everything together.”
In addition to Amira and Pastry Chef Leslie Steh, Colette has four more sous chefs, one for pastry and three savory. Every one of them takes on one part of the business: ordering, payroll, or repairs and maintenance, for example.
“We divide it up so everybody’s constantly working on driving us forward, but it’s not like everybody’s doing everything all the time. It comes together seamlessly. Everyone has quite a lengthy list, but at the end of the day we’ve covered all our bases together.”
The Colette bakery has a separate side entrance from the restaurant, plus to-go and dine-in options for guests. As you walk inside, you’re greeted by a case of fresh-baked bread, house-made pastries — croissants, macarons, mini-cakes, and tarts — and a bustling espresso operation. The sun-filled dining area is dotted with tables, where guests share breakfast or work on their laptops.
The pastry team is led by Chef Leslie, and everything is made from scratch, including those laborious croissants. But part of the fun of the program is that they don’t take themselves too seriously; they recently made s’mores croissants and croissants covered with sprinkles, which was fun for the team (and customers loved them).
“It’s just fun and playful and a bit naughty,” says Amira. “We’re trying to kind of push the envelope and not be so traditional and remind you of childhood memories and guilty pleasures.”
Colette’s bakery makes bread for all of the restaurants in its parent company, the Chase Hospitality Group. There’s a team devoted exclusively to bread baking, as well as staffers who handle custom cake orders for special occasions. The rest of the pastry team focuses on a la carte desserts for the cafe dining room.
“There’s a team coming in the morning, there are shifts coming in all day, and then there’s a bread team coming at night,” says Amira. “And repeat.”
A few months ago, the team opened the Colette Petit Cafe in Her Majesty’s Pleasure, a nearby salon and spa that’s reimagined the traditional business model to include retail and lounge components. The Petit Cafe offers coffee in the morning and cocktails in the evening and showcases all of Colette’s bakery items, and it’s been a hit with bridal showers.
“Who doesn’t love getting their nails done and having a glass of Champagne at the same time?” says Amira. “I think it’s a really nice, unique approach to enhancing that experience. We’ve really had fun with it.”
Colette is famous for its Sunday buffet brunch, which Amira and her team have reinvented for a new guest and a new era.
“I think brunch was sort of forgotten for a long time,” she says. “Maybe for a long time in Toronto we only provided brunches in hotels, and that sort of appeal of brunch lost its way. But it’s been really amazing to see that people really get excited for deviled eggs. And Instagrams of the pastry display. And enjoy the omelette station. Which are kind of, you know, traditional things, but innovated in a newer, more modern way.”
A buffet allows guests to try a little bit of everything. And since it’s constantly changing, they’ll find different dishes from week to week; recently, they’ve had spring asparagus, ramps, and morel mushrooms. Sunday brunch is definitely one of the most profitable programs at Colette, bringing in a huge volume of business.
Now, Amira is building out a Saturday a la carte brunch program as well, “an approachable way to come in for an Eggs Benedict,” as she describes it. She’s focused on making it a special experience and, ultimately, filling the house.
Another way that Colette brings in guests who live or work in the neighborhood or are staying at the Thompson Hotel is with weekday lunch, which consists of a regular a la carte menu as well as a salad bar. Amira and her team took the salad bar concept — often associated with wilted lettuces and uninspired toppings — and made it into something truly healthful and successful.
Colette’s salad bar offers a little bit of everything: a few different salads, proteins, finger sandwiches, and fresh fruit parfaits. Recently, they served a three-pea salad with radicchio, almonds, and herbs; a Caesar-style grilled romaine salad; and a grain salad with goat cheese and arugula. Plus, the salad bar is value-driven so guests aren’t breaking the bank when they come in for lunch.
Often groups will come in for lunch, and half will do the salad bar while the other half will order from the a la carte menu. “Everyone feels satisfied with their decision, and it doesn’t interfere with their timeline either,” says Amira. “It’s a pretty unique offering. It’s providing another level of, would you like this, would you like that, what would you like? We have it all.”
Events and catering are a huge part of Colette’s business. Amira estimates they book at least one private event every day, and on the weekends they usually have a few parties during the day as well as larger groups at night. That requires extra staff, plus precise organization and a plan of action to ensure product is ordered and prepped in time, and events are executed without anyone in the dining room or on the patio noticing the difference.
The Chase Hospitality Group has an events team that works with every restaurant in the company, but Colette also has a dedicated events manager. They meet twice a week to review banquet orders, which cover catering, private dining and cake orders.
“We do have a system, and it’s pretty intense — all the details are covered, and everything is shared with everybody,” says Amira. “They post it in the kitchen so even the staff go through and when they know they have to prep they’re aware that in two days we have this coming, that coming. It’s definitely not by accident.”
Additionally, Colette recently participated in Uber Eats for a second time, offering those sprinkled-covered croissants than guests went crazy over. The first time they did it, Amira says they had 500 customers before lunch even started, plus three other catering orders. She had a small army pitching in in the kitchen, getting everything done. “And then onto lunch service,” she adds.
“Usually we have a bridal shower or wedding shower happening while we do a la carte brunch on Saturday, and then Saturday night it turns into a totally different restaurant, with more of a romantic feel. And we have live music on the weekends, candles at night. The bakery turns into a coffee station and people can take away desserts to go. We have catering all the time, and Uber Eats the other day, making all the food for Her Majesty’s Pleasure. We do all the bread baking for the company. There’s a ton going on every day. I wouldn’t say there’s a busiest time — it’s always going.”