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Veteran restaurateurs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson share their knowledge with Edmonton’s Tres Carnales

The people (and palates) behind Calgary’s Charcut and Edmonton’s Tres Carnales get together to talk about food, finances and the pleasures of running a restaurant

When he was younger, Max Fawcett wanted to make a mint in the markets. Now as the managing editor of Alberta Venture he gets to write about them. Close enough, right? He can be reached at mfawcett@albertaventure.com

Mar 7, 2014

by Max Fawcett

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From left to right: Daniel Braun, Chris Sills, Edgar Gutierrez, John Jackson, Connie DeSousa
Photograph Bookstrucker

THE DINERS

YOUNG RESTAURATEURS: Daniel Braun, Chris Sills and Edgar Gutierrez

HISTORY: It started with three guys in the restaurant business who enjoyed each other’s company almost as much as they enjoyed good – and authentic – Mexican food. And so, in 2011, they opened their own place on Edmonton’s Rice Howard Way. The two-plus years since have more than validated their vision, and in addition to being perpetually busy and hugely popular the restaurant was named one of Canada’s 50 Best Restaurants by Maclean’s in 2012.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 20

LUNCH: LUNCH
Charcut Board, featuring salami Cotta, heritage pork rillettes, sweet Italian sausage skillet, Tasso ham and pig head Mortadella

VETERAN RESTAURATEURS: Connie DeSousa and John Jackson

HISTORY: DeSousa and Jackson first met at The Westin Calgary’s restaurant in 1999, and while they parted ways in 2002 they crossed paths again in San Francisco a few years later. After doing several projects together for other people they decided it was time to work for themselves – and to do it in Calgary. “Something kept bringing us home,” Jackson says, “and we saw something developing in Calgary that was very exciting – that we could be part of the change, part of the direction.” The rest, as they say, is history.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 100

LUNCH: As above

“ We opened up and we were broke. We were in our overdrafts, our credit cards were all maxed out and we needed that day’s sales. We didn’t even have window fixtures.” – Chris Sills, Tres Carnales

Charcut’s Connie DeSousa and John Jackson are already legends in Alberta’s restaurant industry. DeSousa is famous for her appearance – and near victory – on Top Chef Canada, while Jackson’s resumé is without peer in the city. And today, they’re sitting across the table at their restaurant from three people who are on a similar path. Daniel Braun, Edgar Gutierrez and Chris Sills, the “tres carnales” behind the restaurant of the same name, have travelled down Highway 2 to talk shop, share stories and eat a bit of pig face – okay, a lot of it. And it’s clear, right from the outset, that they’re kindred spirits.

After some table talk about the art and science of how to properly brine a piece of meat, Sills gets down to brass tacks. “I’m a little glued to online reviews,” he admits.

“It’s hard, man,” Jackson says. “Even three years in, it’s hard not to take these things personally.
It’s hard not to read it and think, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about! You don’t even know what you’re eating. I read them every day.”

“So do I,” Sills says.

“But 90 per cent of the people that love you, and are your guests, will see that too,” Jackson says. “They’re like, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ But every once in a while you do get one where you did screw up – and for me, they’re little gifts.” DeSousa explains that, on the rarest of occasions they’ll bring someone who isn’t happy back in to try and give them a second chance. “But sometimes they’re just not our fit,” Jackson says. “They’re not a Charcut guest.”

Having that sense of a restaurant’s identity and being willing to defend it is critical, Jackson says. That’s not just something that needs to be projected outwardly, either. “That’s another thing – making sure that the cooks can identify what your concept is and who you are. Is that a Charcut dish? Does it fit here? Staying true to that is really important.”

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“That’s something I wanted to ask,” Gutierrez says. “How do you guys filter all those ideas and still not lose your identity? Do you both come up with the dishes?”

“You have to maintain control of your brand,” Jackson says. “You can’t let junior people dictate what’s going to be on your menu – for us, when a cook wants to present something for a special, they need to cost it out, cook us a sample, and we figure out what adjustments need to be made.”

That identity actually began in DeSousa’s back yard, with a communal potluck they organized to get the word out about their restaurant. And DeSousa says it wasn’t as easy as that might sound, either, given that they went through the Yellow Pages calling every restaurant in town. “They were like, ‘Connie and John who? And you want to do what in your backyard?’”

They ended up with 70 chefs and their families in DeSousa’s backyard, along with a fridge smoker, a massive rotisserie and even a goat petting zoo from one of their prospective vendors. “And everyone brought food,” she says. “We talked about our restaurant and how excited we were about helping to put Calgary on the culinary map, and that was kind of the start of the collaboration that we do at Charcut.”

That spirit of collaboration, Braun says, seems to be growing. “We’ve been talking about this a lot – 10 or 15 years ago, this community feel, it wasn’t there. It was more franchise restaurants, and they were all fighting for market share. Now, it’s like a small village that’s reaching critical mass, and we feel very fortunate to be at a point in Edmonton where there’s a lot of like-minded people with good, new ideas.”

“That’s why I love Calgary,” Jackson says, “and I think Edmonton’s the same – they support local business success. You don’t find that in big cities all over. It’s very much a small town mentality, where they’re proud of you when you’re successful, and they want to contribute to that.”

After an hour or so of eating and exchanging ideas, the subject of money is broached. While both groups are in a good place when it comes to financing their outfits, they remember what it was like the first time. “We opened up and we were broke,” Sills says. “We were in our overdrafts, our credit cards were all maxed out and we needed that day’s sales. We didn’t even have window fixtures.”

Jackson can relate. “It was nearly impossible, because nobody wanted to invest in a restaurant in the middle of a recession.”

But while the money was tight, Jackson says they didn’t compromise when it came to finding people to invest in them. “This person was lined up, but we said, ‘You know what? It’s not the right fit.’” Sills is instantly curious. “Because you were worried they’d be back seat-investors and trying to run the place?”

“There just wasn’t 100 per cent trust,” Jackson says. “Everybody needs to be a contributing member of our investment group.” Now it’s Braun’s turn to follow up. “Meaning what?”

“They need to add value. If they can’t add value to what you’re doing, and it’s just money? Well, you can find money anywhere.” For example, Jackson’s wife, a lawyer, has a partner at her firm that came in as an investor, and provides legal advice when they need it. Their contractor, another investor, often works on the house. And so on.

There’s also talk about the corporate structures each restaurant employs, and it’s a conversation Braun admits he didn’t expect to ever find himself having. “When I first started in this business it was because I loved it, but I never thought I’d be talking about this kind of stuff.” Still, Sills says it was one they had to have – and one that, when they got around to setting up personal holding companies for each of the three of them, was probably long overdue. “We just got so sick and tired of having no net worth. It’s like, ‘We own a restaurant that does almost $2 million in sales a year, but we try to buy a condo and they think we’re out of our mind.’”

Jackson approves. “Your holding company can be used as investment pool, too. Any of you have kids?” Braun says he’s trying. “Your holding company will also be beneficial when you set up your trust for your kid.”

More food hits the table and it’s time to turn the tape recorder off. After all, there are some things better left unsaid – like which big-name Canadian chef thought DeSousa deserved to win the first season of Top Chef Canada. Here’s a hint: there was more than one of them.

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One Response to Veteran restaurateurs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson share their knowledge with Edmonton’s Tres Carnales

  1. Lourdes Zalcik says:

    Daniel and his partners are doing a wonderful job. After living without real tacos for over 5 years in Edmonton, I was finally able to taste the delicious tacos just the way they are in Mexico City, but in a comfortable and clean environment. They definitely thought of everything. I wonder if they also went to Catemaco for good medicine and who’s their witch doctor. Just kidding. They are very talented individuals and deserve their success. Keep up the good tacos.

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