He’s the man who reintroduced Jewish food in downtown Toronto. And also the one who first opened a pop up restaurant in the city, the guy who launched the first modern food truck in town, the only four-time participant on Dragon’s Den TV show. Zane Caplansky is many things, but above all “I’m the kind of guy who breaks up all the rules and wins”.
By Carmen Gómez-Cotta
First rule he broke was back in 2008, when he opened a sandwich shop inside The Monarch Tavern, on Clinton Street south of College. This was an upstairs, second floor, side street, no signed local that was violating the holy sacred rules of restaurants about always be store front, have walk by, and be visible. But he succeeded and for almost a year he ran what “today is regarded as Toronto first pop up restaurant”.
Have you been to The Monarch Tavern? Opened in 1927, is such a part of the history of the city, witness of many conversations between politicians, businessman and mobsters, and also the place where Torontonians celebrated the end of WWII. It is still a classic room with billboards and stools, opened every day, where you can order some BBQ food from Tuesday to Saturday or bring your own and have it there. “I used to go with my father and eat the beef sandwiches we bought in the store across“, he recalls.
He also remembers how his “great-grandmother used to make corned beef and beef tongue sandwiches at home, wrapped them in wax paper and sold them to all the industrial workers in the neighbourhood on her little cigarette shop on Spadina”.
And that is exactly what Zane Caplan (his name at that time) wanted to do: getting back to the familiar recipe and open a place where to serve smoked beef sandwiches and provide with the deli Jewish custom. And he did it. But before he spent five years bag packing around the world. “I worked in restaurants London, Sydney, British Columbia; I opened a chai shop in India, I took cook lessons in China, I came back to Canada, work as an apprentice chef, went to George Brown College for culinary management and ended up at The Monarch”, he summarizes.
After that, and convinced he had developed the perfect smoked beef recipe, he retrieved his forefather last name, changed into Caplansky and opened Caplansky’s on College Street in 2009. “Essentially I was cutting back across a trend and I started rethinking the whole deli Jewish tradition. We do everything hand-made, home-made, old fashion style; we’re not taking somebody else’s cured brisket, warming it up and serving it. I start from scratch with raw briskets; I cure, smoke, steam and slice them”. And the result is a tender, juicy smoked beef sandwich that is among the best in North America, like Schawartz’s in Montreal or Katz’s in NY.
After two years perfecting what is now his hallmark and developing Caplansky’s character -with his white paper hat, white T-shirt and white apron-, he jumped into Thunderin’ Thelma without any clue of “how difficult or expensive the struggle was going to be”. Yes, he’s referring to Thelma; and no, she’s not a woman but a truck. “I didn’t know how hard both the restaurant but specifically the food truck business is”, he laughs out loud.
Running a food truck implies all the complications of a restaurant business plus mobility, and even if this seems to be the strength, is at the same time one of the weaknesses. “My customers know where my restaurant is going to be tomorrow but with a truck, even with new technologies and social media, not everybody always knows where Thunderin’ Thelma will be. This is no like the movie Chef that you tweet and people shows up, it’s not that easy”.
On the other hand, he recognizes the advantages and benefits of his food truck. Several months ago he was operating in front of City Hall and he sold $1,000 in an hour. “We spent three hours and we made $3,000. Around 30% is food cost and 10% labor cost (we have four people in the truck: 5 hours on road, $10 per hour, so $50 per person which is $200; $300 would be 10% of the sales). That makes 60% margin; in restaurants, 60% margin doesn’t exist and that’s a wonderful thing to do”. According to the Restaurants Association, the average of profit margin is less than 5%; so even if this 60% margin it’s not every day but just special events, it’s still a good business, as Caplasnky reckons.
With that idea in mind he went to Dragon’s Den and again, since the first minute, he broke molds. “There I was, wearing my hat and my white T-shirt, my meat and a poster of the truck behind me, and pitching to these two producers of the show that they were not getting it. I started to sweat, plop sweat, embarrassed, realizing that I wasn’t going to be on the show, when a woman with a clip board comes over and shouts ‘Caplansky! I love Caplansky’s. Food trucks! I love them. You’re on the show’. She was the executive producer and she kicked me in”.
He got on the show, he brought Thanderin’ Thelma with him, and he asked for $350.000 to launch a fleet of food trucks. But the dragons didn’t get it, “they didn’t see it at the time (2011), even though Boston Pizza launched food trucks two years later”. (Jim Treliving, Boston Pizza’s founder, was a dragon-judge at the TV show).
But Torontonians love food trucks and a year later they called him back to be part of an updated episode and he accepted it. Then a third time because of a second-chance-pitch special show, and again he took the chance of going and talking to a national audience, but this time he rejected the offers they made him. The fourth and last time he went to Dragon’s Den was because he was franchising Caplansky’s and doing grocery store products.
“I really believe this TV show changed my life. Even though the dragons were very negative, each time they said something I pushed back. And I think something happened on the very first episode that people connected with me”, he admits.
The reaction of that connection came all of a sudden: You gotta it here; Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives; Top Chefs Canada; Food Trucks; his own radio show (Let’s eat); two franchises at Pearson Airport opened last summer (one at Terminal 1, another at Terminal 2) and also last year he reconnected with The Monarch Tavern and his minuscule kitchen running Baju BBQ and serving straightforward, unpretentious and authentic barbecue food.
This is the story of our beloved deli man: a genuine, honest and hard-working Caplansky who doesn’t take a no for an answer and never gives up. “What I lack in fort site I make up in persistence”, he concludes.
Thanks to that tenacity, Zane Caplansky and Thunderin’ Thelma won the battle over City of Toronto and after four years of struggle the regulations regarding food trucks are improving and the new food truck law is better for the business. But that’s another story that The Bubble Dancer will tell you in another post…