From La Carnita to Sweet Jesus
By Kristen Smith
TORONTO — In five years time, La Carnita has grown from a pop-up operation selling artwork with a side of “free” tacos to a small restaurant group ready for franchising.
Andrew Richmond, CEO of parent company Monarch & Misfits, was inspired by eateries in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“The Mission tends to be a little bit more authentic, but there were a few places that were doing kind of a modern take on Mexican cuisine, but with a really strong bar focus,” he said. “It was something I really fell in love with.”
Back in Toronto, Richmond recognized there was an opportunity for this sub-niche. He and Amin Todai created La Carnita and launched in July 2011 out of design studio One Method, where Todai is president and CEO and Richmond was a design director.
“A good way to test a concept with low overhead is with a pop-up model, and nobody had really done that in Toronto,” Richmond said. “We did it, it went off with a blast and we kept doing it for a solid year every two weeks, with the exception of a couple special events.”
At that point, it was time to open a brick and mortar location. Enter Monarch & Misfits president Terry Tsianos (also president and CEO of Pegasus Group).
“He was a big part of bringing that to life,” said Richmond.
Tsianos came with a wealth of experience and knowledge of the foodservice industry the founding partners didn’t yet have.
“We’re great at the front end of stuff; he’s incredibly good at the back end of stuff,” said Richmond. “There was a lot of structure that he brought to our non-structured environment.”
Each partner brings his own strengths to the Monarch & Misfits brands and Richmond said they are respectful of each other’s territory.
“We’ve been successful in trusting each other and I think that’s part of our strength,” he said.
They hired chef Jon Hamilton to take on the bulk of the cooking and lead menu design — something Richmond had done previous to opening the 100-seat first location at College and Bathurst in 2012 — although the original taco creator still has some input.
“We realized quickly that we had a knack for dessert,” said Richmond, noting La Carnita’s paleta program was well received.
When they opened Home of the Brave — an ode to American classics at King and Portland — chef-driven soft serve ice cream landed on the dessert menu.
Before Sweet Jesus became its own entity entirely, it was tested as the dessert program at both Home of the Brave and La Carnita.
“That allowed us to hone each one further and get the name out there and kind of build it,” said Richmond.
Sweet Jesus was officially born when the John Street La Carnita location opened in September of 2015.
“There wasn’t a lot of faith in an ice cream concept, I’m not going to lie. I actually shoe-horned that one in without anyone knowing,” said Richmond. “I might have been in some hot water if it didn’t work.”
In the meantime, the second La Carnita location, which also has a Sweet Jesus outpost, had opened in March 2015.
The fourth opened in early August, a co-branded location with a Sweet Jesus unit at 130 Eglinton Ave. East. In mid-August a standalone Sweet Jesus operation opened in Ottawa’s ByWard Market.
Jeff Young joined the Monarch & Misfits team in the spring as chief development officer.
The company already has multi-unit deals in Dubai and Bangladesh and is working to bring Sweet Jesus to California, Florida and the U.K.
Formerly with FDF Restaurant Brandz, Young discovered Monarch & Misfits during a recent Toronto franchise show — not at the show, but while out to dinner at a La Carnita.
“I loved the whole ambiance, the atmosphere, the vibe. The culinary was outstanding,” he said. “I went to the back of the restaurant and out of this small little ice cream shop, there’s a lineup out the door on a Sunday night in January at about 9 p.m.”
Young said the plan is to grow the brands both separately and as a combined unit. “Quite frankly, the type of franchisee for each of those is going to be quite different,” he said.
While Young believes Sweet Jesus is destined to become an international brand, he thinks La Carnita is more appropriate in key North American markets.
The average footprint for Sweet Jesus is about 1,000 square feet, while La Carnita requires a space in the area of 3,500 to 4,500 square feet.
In addition to the right markets and real estate, Richmond said great partnerships would be the key to successful franchising.
“The hardest part, especially for a creative mind, is relinquishing control,” he said. “I’m not a control freak, but there is a level of standard we strive to reach all the time.”