How Adrian Niman went from grilling kebabs in his mom’s midtown condo to overseeing a multimillion-dollar catering business with two restaurants, one food truck, and a gigantic HQ.
Just south of Leslieville, surrounded by tiny homes and squat warehouses, sits Food Dudes HQ. It’s not the toniest location for a Toronto catering company, but what it lacks in style it makes up for in substance—10,000 square feet of it.
The production kitchen alone is 6,500 square feet, filled with stainless-steel tables, high-tech ovens, and a walk-in fridge the size of a Parkdale restaurant. A garage door opens so food can be loaded into a waiting truck. Above, in the mezzanine, Food Dude founder and chef Adrian Niman stood with his partner and co-chef, Dan Frenette, surveying 15 cooks as they prepared hundreds of duck-confit pierogies and braised pork-belly skewers and assembled a taco station. There was a party for a fashion magazine the next day, and 500 people were expected.
Seven years ago, Niman—who had apprenticed at North 44 as a teen—was a hospitality student taking on his first catering gigs. The set-up was decidedly different: He lived with his mother in a midtown condo, using her piano as a prep surface for spring rolls and cramming as many kebabs as he could into the communal barbecue. Word of his talent spread through family and friends, and within a year, Niman had enough catering gigs that he outgrew his mom’s kitchen (much to her delight).
He then struck a deal with Chippy’s Fish & Chips owner John Lee: For $700 a month, Niman would be allowed to cook out of Chippy’s Annex location (which has since become a poutine shop). The company grew, with Niman’s friend Brent McClenahan signing on as a partner, as well as Frenette, who was fresh off a three-year stint cooking for The Rolling Stones on tour. But the resources weren’t ideal. Chippy’s kitchen was tiny; a door on the catering van needed to be secured with a coat hanger; that same van had to double as a fridge in the winter; and their barbecue only cooked one brisket at a time, meaning it took them three days to make 30 briskets for a festival in the Beaches.
“We were getting really exciting events, like parties at the Windsor Arms, but if they had seen our space at Chippy’s, we probably wouldn’t have been hired,” said Niman, who once had McClenahan repaint the kitchen and dress up in a lab coat when party planners from a hotel came in. After two years, it was time to go: First, The Food Dudes took over the kitchens of Yorkville’s Empire Nightclub, then signed on as part-owners of King West’s Bloke & Forth. In late summer 2012, they rolled out a food truck, serving crispy fish tacos and gooey macaroni balls to office workers and festival attendees. “We’re the only caterer that can show up with a truck [full of] late-night food right after we catered the actual dinner,” Niman said. “I’m surprised other catering companies haven’t done it.”
Since The Food Dudes had ambitions beyond club grub, they severed ties with Bloke & Forth last year and focused on their own restaurants. Tabula Rasa, in Harbord Village, opens this month with a patio for 50 and plates topping out at $18. Junk, which still needs a location, will feature former Acadia chef Matt Blondin. Of course, that’s not all: They just opened a small take-out spot in their headquarters, which sells marinated meats, pantry items, and rotating prepared foods drawn from the catering gigs lined up that week.
Back at Food Dudes HQ, as the team prepared for the fashion-magazine bash, McClenahan handed Niman a draft of Tabula Rasa’s menu to peruse in the office. Frenette, taking a break from trimming slabs of beef in the kitchen, flipped through the company bible of recipes—500 now, as opposed to the 15 that Niman had at the start. A full-time staff of 50 bustled around, peering in meat smokers and poking at pastries.
“I still drive past the old Chippy’s location and smile and think, ‘Look how far we’ve come,’” Niman said. “We’re not a small business anymore.”
24 Carlaw Ave., 647-340-3833, thefooddudes.com.