You can find one of the best catering companies in this city hiding behind a modest Victorian storefront on the north side of Carlton Street, just a few doors east of the intersection with Parliament.
For over 30 years, 248 Carlton Street has been the home of Daniel et Daniel: caterers, ex-wholesalers, and owners of the Daniel et Daniel store, where one can buy assorted salads, pastries, chocolates, and other tasty tidbits.
The business is named after its founders Daniel Clairet and Daniel Megly, who both found themselves working at Toronto's Auberge Gavroch restaurant in the late 1970s. I had the privilege of hearing about their early years—and some of the years since—from Daniel Megly himself.
In the beginning...
"We wanted to open something, but we were young; we didn't have any money, anybody to support us, or anything like that,"
said Daniel Megly, one of the owners.
"But I had a friend, and at the time he had a commissary kitchen that was under-used. So he said 'if you want, to help you out, I could rent you some space.' My partner has a background both in pastry and in cooking, which was very convenient, and I had worked in hotels, so we decided to start wholesaling, and we started doing catering."
That was in 1980. A year later, the pair left the commissary kitchen for a larger rented space in Cabbagetown, close to where Megly was living at the time. They haven't moved since, but they have expanded considerably. Back then, though, what they had seemed luxurious when compared to the size of the business, which consisted of the two Daniels and "a student that came with some kind of a program." And they were very, very busy.
"My partner and I, we did everything when we first started; I was taking the orders, doing the deliveries, helping him, doing the accounting, dishes, everything."
Since they now had the space, they set up not only a kitchen in the back of the building, but also a food shop in the front. Their timing and location seem to have been perfect.
"We were very lucky. The neighbourhood was very supportive of us. It was amazing,"
"You have to put things in perspective, this is like, 35 years ago, you know? Toronto wasn't the city that it is today. So when we opened, and we started making croissants, and pastries, and salads and soup, and selling things that even the supermarket didn't have 35 years ago, it took off very well. There was a lot of French people coming in and trying the food, and we had lollipops from France, and Camembert, and things like that. So it was a place where people really enjoyed themselves,"
Toronto wasn't the city that it is today. So when we opened, and we started making croissants, and pastries, and salads and soup, and selling things that even the supermarket didn't have 35 years ago, it took off very well.
Although it's not nearly as important a part of the business as it was back then, the store is still going strong.
"We're very fortunate that from the minute we open at 7:30, until 6:30, it's busy the whole day. We're very fortunate. So we built up the food shop, and it gave us a bit of, you know, an address."
Having a visible 'address' was important because it meant that, unlike many caterers who operate out of warehouses or other anonymous facilities, Daniel et Daniel had a pleasant, publicly accessible face, and another way of getting their name out into the city. They were on the map now—literally.
This isn't to say that everything was running perfectly smoothly.
"When we started catering we had a really strong background in food and service,"
says Megly about their beginnings.
"I worked in banquets, you know? In hotels and so on, in Paris, in London, so I knew how to put the banquet together, but I didn't know about more small-scale catering. Like social catering where you go to somebody's place, and what to charge, and how to do certain things. And because it was 35 years ago, it was very difficult to get information on that. Today, you Google it, you find it, there are books, they have everything. But at that time, there wasn't really much. So we had to learn a lot of things on our own."
It was 35 years ago, it was very difficult to get information on that. Today, you Google it, you find it, there are books, they have everything. But at that time, there wasn't really much. So we had to learn a lot of things on our own.
Megly told me a story from those early days of learning the hard way. One of their first 'good-sized' events [maybe 80 people, he guessed] was thrown by an advertising company. The two Daniels brought the requested food to an address on University Avenue and...
"And I opened the door and—we had these trays to carry the food that weren't good—and as I opened the door, the tray kind of collapsed in half, and then I dropped some things. Fortunately it was all wrapped properly, but it didn't look as good as it was meant to be,"
"And my partner was really pissed at me and he says, you know, 'Look at that! We've done all that!' and so on. Then we go back to the car to bring some more things, and he opens the door and the same thing happens to him. Anyway, we managed to bring everything up and set it up, and the woman running the event said to us 'Wow'. And we explained to her that we had a slight accident but we would fix it, we just needed to rearrange it a little bit. And she says 'It's really nice, but you're not charging enough, you know.'"
Whether or not they're charging enough, the modern Daniel et Daniel has grown a bit from its original staff of two men and a student. They gave up the wholesale entirely (about 10 years into the business) to focus on the store and catering. And their catering can be pretty full-serve, with the wait staff, lighting, entertainment, and AV provided by the company. Megly estimated that they employ nearly 100 people (according to the company website, 10 of these are pastry experts), and their Executive Sous Chef Karen O'Connor was named 'chef of the year' in 2015 by the U.S catering association Catersource.
Where once they rented a couple of rooms at Carlton and Parliament, Daniel et Daniel now owns four whole buildings. After our interview, Megly took me for a tour of the facilities, which include the main 'hot kitchen' behind the food shop, a 'cold kitchen' in the basement, a meat prep room, a pastry kitchen, cold storage, and office space for their accounting and marketing departments. Due to concerns that their four properties with only one operating store front would reduce the liveliness and diversity of the street, Megly and Co. now rent out front and basement portions of two buildings. Their meat butchering room is now fronted by a health food store, while a hairdresser conceals the shipping area.
All of this space and bustle may soon be operating without its founding fathers.
"We're planning about removing ourselves, but keeping the company going," Megly told me, referring to Clairet and himself.
"We have a lot of really well-groomed people, and smart people and so on, so it's just giving them the option to do it, you know? To put their marks on the business."
After the tour was over, and I was getting ready to leave, I asked Daniel Megly what his favourites were of their current menu.
"Everything," he said, without hesitation. "Everything we do, we do it because we like it, and we enjoy it." How many businesses can say that?