‘Restaurants are fun’: John Borsten reflects on almost 40 years in the business

John borsten
John Borsten is behind Starling Restaurant & Bar and several other well-known Ottawa eateries (File photo)

For restaurant owner John Borsten, dealing with post-pandemic challenges means taking things one day at a time. Borsten, who’s behind some of Ottawa’s best-known restaurants, including Zak’s Diner, the Metropolitain Brasserie, The Grand Pizzeria and Starling Restaurant and Bar, spoke to OBJ reporter Mia Jensen about the cost of doing business and the return of dining out post-pandemic. 

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have things been going in the past year, now that we’re exiting the pandemic?

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A: We’re still here, so that’s good news. The pandemic was a horror show and that was then followed by the (“Freedom Convoy”) truckers. It was a low point for sure. Luckily, the government funded us fairly well, so we made it through all of that, which was a nightmare the whole time. 

Then sales came back and they’re pretty good. We’re always dependent on weather; that’s big in this town. But I say, overall, it’s back to regular problems, as opposed to COVID, government-mandated closings, takeout only and all that that went on for two years. We’re back to doing what we do.

Q: What are those regular problems that you’re dealing with now?

A: We’re trying to be busier, trying to have costs come in line; regular business stuff. Specifically, the problems now are in the ByWard Market. The city needs to step up and take care of this very important area, which they’re starting to pay more attention to. Hopefully we’ll see some results. 

Costs are a big problem. With restaurants, there’s really only two costs that matter, which is your cost of goods and your labour cost. We seem to have wrestled our food cost problem down in various ways. But there’s really only so much you can do and I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. The ratio of customers to staff hasn’t changed. It takes just as many people to do a good job as it always did. So when labour costs go up, and they’ve gone up substantially, that’s a real problem. That’s the difficulty. Managing inflation, labour inflation and trying to get people products that we can afford to sell at the price they want to pay.

Q: What kinds of unexpected positives have come out of this post-pandemic period for you?

Well, I can’t prove this, but I think what’s happening is because people aren’t meeting in person as often, they’re making more visits (to restaurants). Our Christmas party numbers are substantially higher this year than pre-COVID. I think people are trying to get together more. They’re having more lunches and drinks and things where they can actually see people in person. Plus, my feeling is that as you sit there at home on your computer hour after hour, day after day, you want to get out every now and again and actually see real people function in the real world. Restaurants provide that interaction. 

Q: Are you noticing any other trends?

A: We’re very conscious of trying to keep prices in line and adjusting products so we don’t have to charge too much. The fear going forward, which is already starting to happen, is that people’s rents and mortgages are going up. In my mind, that’s restaurant money; that’s entertainment money. 

Basically we get up and every day is Groundhog Day. It doesn’t really matter what we did yesterday. We get up to make food service. Hopefully everyone does a good job, people like it and they come back again. That’s really all we ever try to do. All the other stuff that comes at you, you react as you think you have to. 

Q: What’s driving you to keep doing what you’re doing despite the challenges?

A: It’s a very fun, active business and very tactile. It’s just a hard-work business and common sense. Every problem I have, every one of my competitors has too. I’m not competing with fancy schmancy guys in New York City or Paris. We’re dealing with people in Ottawa, in the immediate neighbourhood we’re operating in. 

There’s no straight line to the top. I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years and it’s always a mixed bag. I own nine restaurants and it’s like having nine kids; they all have different needs. But I try to be positive. I see a recession coming but it’s probably the sixth one I’ve seen. 

I’ve done this since I was 15. It took me this long to figure it out. Restaurants are fun. I’m not working the floor anymore but when I did, it was like a party every night and people are happy to be there. It’s not like the dentist, people dreading to see who they get. They’re having a good time and they’re leaving happy. It’s fun to be a part of that.

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