Empire Restaurant rebrand marks return of chef Norm Aitken

A 2014 OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient is back in the kitchen again with one new project already underway, and another one in the works.


Days after Norm Aitken shut down Juniper Restaurant in Westboro in November, he says John Borsten and Dave Mangano of the Empire Restaurant Group approached him.
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By the end of that month, he and five of his Juniper team were hard at work rebranding the group’s flagship restaurant in the ByWard Market. The Empire Grill closed in late February. Three weeks later, the Empire Restaurant was born with a soft launch, according to Mr. Aitken.

“Let’s work out the kinks,” he said, the day after the official grand opening party Thursday night. The cat is out of the bag now, as 250 filled the restaurant for the event, he said.

“It was a little hectic, it was fun,” he said.

Mr. Aitken said sometimes restaurants need to reinvent themselves and perhaps the steak and martini direction of the old restaurant was “starting to fade a little bit.”

The timing was right for Mr. Aitken, he said, because after being forced to close Juniper because of economic conditions, he wanted to take a break from ownership.

“You know what? I was sick and tired of being the HR department, being the media department, from payroll to you name it,” he said. “You know, just let me cook. Just let me cook. I can own and do all that but with the independent brand and one location, I don’t have enough energy. I just can’t do it. You know what? You’re just going to kill yourself trying to keep up with it. It’s just crazy.”

That doesn’t mean ownership isn’t in Mr. Aitken’s future, but it clearly won’t be the Juniper model.

When the new project is ready to go, Mr. Aitken said he hopes to find a location on Elgin Street or Bank Street, and with his investors, is hoping to purchase the property.

“Eliminates rental increases and everything that I’ve already been through,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind nipping that a bit. Gives you more leverage, that’s all.”

After that, a full expansion into suburbia is in the works as Mr. Aitken said he hopes to have seven locations open in the next five years.

He said the idea for the new project comes from Taiwan and is focused on the cooking method. Mr. Aitken says the launch, expected within the year, will be a North American first.

“My garage at the house is pretty much set up as a kitchen, and we just do testing every week,” he said.

Mr. Aitken said the Empire Group is aware of his other plans and may even want to get involved, but at this point, he is working with an entirely different team of investors.

In the meantime, Mr. Aitken said he is happy in the kitchen at the new Empire Restaurant, and expects to stay put for the next couple years.

“As soon as we’re ready to launch the next project, I’ll just take the back burner here for a little bit, babysit it for a while, but I’ll have a staff here that is pretty much good to go,” he said. “They’re ready to go. They can run it. They won’t need me here.”

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