Restaurateur of the Year: Bob Desautels, The Neighbourhood Group of Companies
When Bob Desautels voluntarily paid a premium for local electricity generated by windmills, his peers thought he was “crazy,” the Guelph-based restaurateur admits.
However, ensuring The Neighbourhood Group of restaurants operates in an environmentally friendly manner, with local products in mind, has propelled the company to generate more than $9 million in sales annually at its four properties.
“We’re probably the most successful restaurant group in the region and our restaurant sales are above the Canadian average,” Desautels said. “It makes me feel good. It’s easier to get out of bed in the morning when you know you’re doing something to support your local economy.”
While a green business model gives Desautels peace of mind, the commitment to local products and sustainability also provides added value for customers. He explained a secret to marketing is to create a unique reason for someone to frequent the establishment.
“Service and quality are now just a minimum requirement for a successful restaurant. It gives people another reason to come to your restaurants,” Desautels said. “They become the most loyal customers you have. They become your advocates, which is word of mouth. There’s nothing more powerful than word of mouth.”
In 1985, Desautels opened his first eatery, La Maison, a French restaurant that included one of Ontario’s few wine bars at the time. After three years, he sold the business to focus on teaching at University of Guelph. He reacquired the restaurant in 1990 and transformed the business into The Woolwich Arrow.
“It was coincidental at the time that craft breweries were starting to emerge. I decided to go with local craft beer on tap,” he said. “It really took off.”
With local beer deemed a success, Desautels and his staff used the same approach for food.
“We had venison cooked in Niagara red wine, our version of beef bourguignon, and bison hamburgers,” Desautels said. “We pushed the envelope on local food.”
From there, he began sending food scraps for composting, using the local green utility company and installing solar panels to heat water.
“I was always interested in sustainability. Having young children makes you think a lot more about the future,” said Desautels, who is a founding member of Canada’s Green Party. “Local was one of the most important things for sustainability.”
Currently, The Neighbourhood Group’s employees are offered benefits after three months. After two years of employment, the company pays 100 per cent of benefit costs.
Now, The Neighbourhood Group is working towards paying its staff a certified living wage, which equals about $17 an hour in the region.
“We’re trying to get everyone around that threshold and we’re almost there,” Desautels said.
Landing a job at one of the restaurants requires the applicant to share the same passion for local products and sustainability as the parent company.
“We don’t hire on good looks, we’re more interested in their values and their attitude,” Desautels said. “The whole focus is to look carefully at candidates. We don’t want people that are just there for the money.”
In 2008, Desautels partnered with his son Court to open the first Borealis location in Guelph. The second location opened in Kitchener, Ont. three years later. With three restaurants under The Neighbourhood Group, the father and son team began ensuring every product they purchased was created in Ontario, from uniforms to dishwashing chemicals to cars.
“It’s kind of fun, it’s like a research project each time we’re looking to procure something else,” Desautels said.
With a business model firmly entrenched in sustainability and local, Court began the process of becoming B Corp certified (standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency). All four restaurants qualified, making the Neighbourhood Group the largest B Corp certified restaurant group in the world.
“My whole goal is to not blow the horn that we’re better than you guys. Everything we do is consistent with these values. We don’t handpick one or two things,” Desautels said. “I don’t think it runs very deep in a lot of companies. Our commitment is to operating in a sustainable way.”
In late 2015, The Neighbourhood Group opened their latest concept, Miijidaa Café + Bistro. Miijidaa, which is Ojibwa for “let’s eat,” fuses French, English and indigenous cuisine. The menu explores how European settlers used native North American ingredients in their recipes and vice versa.
“We are researching what food they were eating and then look at the French and English influence on that,” Desautels said. “I think that’s what Canadian cuisine actually is. Everything else that has happened since then, I don’t think it’s true Canadian cuisine. I think it’s trends.”
The “back to the future” recipes developed at Miijidaa will also assist the other restaurants in The Neighbourhood Group.
“In a way, I want it to be our research lab for foods we use in other locations,” Desautels said.
While Desautels has made his living in hospitality, he was also once a pro golfer on the Canadian circuit. The sport taught him tenacity is the secret to success.
“You get used to not winning,” he said.
His resume is rounded out with a master’s degree in philosophy that also played a role in how he operates his restaurants.
“It makes you look at how you’re living your life,” Desautels said. “When it’s time to make a decision, or there’s a tough time, I know to stick with my principles. They’re the right ones and it obviously worked out in a restaurant concept.”
The Restaurateur of the Year award will be presented at the CAFP Top Management Night Gala on Feb. 9 in Toronto.