Lawrence La Pianta is the owner and pitmaster of Cherry Street Bar-B-Que in Toronto, which specializes in Southern-style smoked meats with multi-culturally influenced flavors. As a guest of Hometown Barbecue, where he parked his smoker, Lawrence also took home the top prize at Brisket King NYC 2018 for his traditional brisket platter served with white bread and pickles. He spoke to us about how Cherry Street and his New York style deli Elm Street Italian Deli are faring, how the Canadian government has helped small businesses stay afloat and what he’s looking forward to post pandemic. If you’re in Toronto, you can order barbecue for pickup or delivery. As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We were kind of preemptive in knowing the inevitable was going to happen and they were going to shut down dining rooms, so we quickly moved to a takeout model. We really started pressing that hard on social media and on our website and letting people know that we were still available for pickup. We arranged everything via email or phone calls and everyone had a specific pickup time. We weren’t really doing walk-in traffic.
Cherry Street is very much a destination in Toronto because even though we’re only fifteen minutes from downtown there’s nothing else around us. When people do come to visit us, they’re specifically coming to that area for us. We’re in that area because we cook old school traditional barbecue and we cook it on wood. We can’t really be in a downtown location burning fires 24/7. We chose to be where we are because of the way we cook barbecue, but it put us in a very specific and unique situation when it came to times like our first winter when no one knew we were down there. It was really, really tough. We navigated our way through that, and it was the same thing with the pandemic.
All the sudden, everything was told to close. We had already moved to takeout, so we started providing delivery. We were never set up for the apps. We didn’t have any of those at Cherry because we didn’t need to. In the protein business and in barbecue, even though barbecue is supposed to be affordable and approachable for everyone, the margins aren’t the greatest. Protein is expensive. I cook American brisket. My brisket comes up from the States, so not only am I paying the same dollar amount that you American restaurants pay, but then the exchange rate adds $2-$3 more a pound for the same brisket that you get somewhere in the US.
Our entire business is built on our brisket, that’s what we’re known for. You start with the best product, it’s rule number one of any kitchen: you want to serve the best food you want to start with the best product. There are not very many other types of food in the world that take 24 hours and three people to cook.
We had to pivot. We moved really quickly, and the first month was horrible. I remember two weeks in, trying to carry all my staff, and I thought, “this is impossible.” Then the mass layoffs started everywhere. I had to strip it down, and we went down to just core staff. We went from 35 employees down to eight, and that was just the one location.
We had a downtown location as well in a chef driven food court in the same building as Google’s head office. There were 16 chefs in there that all have their wares. There were no chains in there, it was all real people behind each place. That place closed down right away, and the whole hall closed because the city started implementing restrictions.
The city mandated that all dining rooms had to close, and, like I said, we knew that was coming. Then the province wide shutdown happened, and it just went from bad to worse to almost a nightmare. We could lose everything we worked for for the last five years, it could just go down the drain. It was really really frightening.
Six weeks in, myself and my general manager and my other manager agreed that this was the way that it was going to be. I was quoted up here very early saying I wouldn’t be opening my dining room until there was a vaccine. I didn’t go to school for food, I went to school for science and I know how things work. There’s no way around this until there’s a vaccine. We’re going on a full year now. March 16th will be a year of everything closing down. Some areas of the province are opening up again for dining, but we know that there’s another wave coming, now we have a variant that they’ve discovered, we don’t even have an eighth of our population vaccinated, we’re in the middle of winter, let’s hold off.
There are definitely some practices we have implemented that we will keep up. We’ve done some things to the menu and to ordering that have simplified it on the customer end. We got really great positive feedback from it, and I don’t think that will change. I think we will just continue to make it easier to order and to get barbecue and to try various items that we have and kind of group them together.
I really wanted to give that authentic experience where you order meat by the pound and you don’t have to have a sample platter on the menu because you ask for a quarter pound of everything and that’s a sample platter, but people don’t get it and it’s hard to teach that and explain that to customers. We have a couple sample platters now. If you want to sample the ribs or if you want to do a meat sampler for one and get a taste of everything. We put these together now and we found that ordering has gone up. People go out to eat because they want to get away from their jobs, so if you make them come to a restaurant and make figuring out what to eat feel like work they don’t like it. Anyone who is an aficionado of barbecue will always know how to order. I had always fought it because I wanted to give people an authentic experience, and there’s nothing authentic about ordering the “Pitmaster Platter.”
The next step for Toronto should be outdoor dining again. People can be spaced out when the weather is warmer and things get a little better. If we do the mass vaccination then by September or October hopefully we can have some sense of normalcy again after a year and a half, which is kind of what we expected.
We had three phases, and by July they allowed indoor dining based on how many people you could fit in your restaurant following the guidelines. I haven’t opened my dining room since we first closed down. I’ve only got fifty seats in the dining room, so you’re telling me with spacing I can have 12? How about I don’t open and just continue with the way I’m operating.
I have a lot of friends in fine dining who have gotten beat up. In Toronto, every single chef who is well recognized, super talented and amazing and has a great restaurant has opened a burger spot. They all have a burger joint coming out of their fine dining place because it was the only thing that they could operate and make sense of. Fine dining doesn’t travel well, but you can do a really high end, fantastic burger, so we’ve had an amazing proliferation of burger joints in the city.
There’s a lot of types of dining that took a hit. Even mom and pop restaurants in neighborhoods that had been there for twenty or thirty years. They were never on an app and they were just locals and it was for the community. We’ve seen a bunch of these places really get hit really hard, whereas with barbecue it feeds a lot of people, it travels well, you can deliver it and you can have a great experience even though it’s not in house. People can eat it at home and really enjoy it. You don’t get all the ambiance of being in the restaurant and coming out back and seeing all the pits and doing a pit tour and seeing the smokers, but in terms of getting quality food that makes people happy and is satisfying, barbecue lends itself well to that.
I had just opened a New York style sandwich deli where we make all our own meats and bake our own breads. It opened one month before Covid happened and it’s very close to downtown where all the hospitals are located. We were clipping along and it was like somebody pulled out the rug from underneath us. Everyone just disappeared, and for two months we didn’t have another customer in there. If it wasn’t for Cherry, I would have had to close the deli, but I wanted to stick it out and see what happened.
We got on the apps, but now the unfortunate thing about the deli is that it’s almost like you’re a drone. You hear a beep on the machine and then you make a sandwich. It really takes the love out of why we’re there. We never wanted to be a ghost kitchen but we kind of have become one because there’s no one in the area.
Getting back to Cherry, the pandemic took us back to being focused on our customers and listening and being very attentive to what was going on and seeing what was working. Some people waited around for summer to happen. We can’t wait for anything to come to us, we have to go and get it and we have to make this work. We were really diligent about posting on social media every day about our hours and what we were doing and what was going on trying to keep customers aware of what was happening. By giving people constant updates on what was happening they could feel like they were connected and part of what we were doing, and then they felt even better about supporting.
I absolutely have hope for the industry. As dramatic and horrible as everything is, it seems the rebound effect will be as dramatic and great because people will come out and support.
At Cherry Street we haven’t had any Covid scares. When everything started, I told everybody not to go shopping at the grocery store but to order through the restaurant. We bring in produce and everything you need here. Anything anyone needed, I tried to provide through the restaurant and I tried to keep that super, super tight.
At the deli, I had a scare it turned out everyone was fine and then I had a breakout. Not to be cold, but staff can’t come near me because if anything happens anywhere I need to be able to go in and run the place. I lost the deli for almost two weeks. I had to have it all sanitized, and we closed down for two weeks because I didn’t have staff.
I’ve told my staff that if they are sick, they take the day off. Because we have wage subsidies now, if they have to take the month off they’ll get paid. If someone is feeling under the weather they still get paid for their eight hours. That’s something personally that I do. I say, “you can make that up to me some other time, but I don’t want you coming into work because you feel like you need to get paid. Stay home and screen yourself.” I don’t care if you just feel bad for a day or two or maybe you had one too many with your roommate last night, don’t put other people’s health at risk. It’s not about being paid, it’s about being safe, you don’t have to come to work for fear of losing your job or not getting paid.
I feel that the government has been doing a good job. I feel very lucky to be where I am. We have been fortunate to have support: we’ve had labor subsidies, rental subsidies, energy subsidies. There’s been all kinds of support for small businesses. You can argue and debate how it was handled, if they did it fast enough and if they’re doing it right. Everyone’s got a point of view. We’re fortunate enough to be able to have a point of view because we don’t actually have to make the decisions. I can’t find a world leader anywhere in the world who’s winning a claim for beating Covid, so there’s always going to be naysayers and people saying that the government has messed up somehow. Sure, everyone’s made mistakes, but they haven’t really been through this before. All levels of government are working together here really well, and they have been doing their best, I feel, for small businesses and trying to help everyone out. I think we’ve been pretty lucky to be where we are because we’ve received a lot of help. I’ve got barbecue friends in Florida and New York, and in speaking to them, they haven’t had nearly the programs that we’ve had up here to give us an opportunity to stay afloat.
It’s been horrible, no one wanted to go through this, but I think we’ve been pretty lucky here with the way these things have made out. I know there’s businesses right now in Toronto that are open because they’re getting all the subsidies and they would have ended up closing a year ago had Covid not happened but they’re now floating because they’re getting the support.
I’ve learned a lot about my business during this time. You definitely don’t need as much as you think you need to be successful. I stripped everything back down and I went back to being in the business instead of running locations. I never stopped cooking. I know a lot of people who have restaurants with multiple locations, and they don’t get to cook. I would be in the pit cooking at least a couple days a month, every month no matter what was going on because that’s why I left a successful career in film and television to go into barbecue. I did it because I love cooking barbecue, and I think what got me through this, besides the fact that I had a daughter who was born just two months prior to the pandemic happening and gave me a whole new light on life in general, is that I was back at the restaurant at 3:30 in the morning again, lighting fires and cooking barbecue. I always had a smile on my face.
Everything got stripped down. Our barbecue has never been tighter because it went to me and one other guy doing the full cooks. We were doing 18 hour days cut between the two of us, and the barbecue had never been more consistent, never been better. We had this kind of rebirth. People were trying us out for the first time because they didn’t have to come down to us because now we’re available on the apps, so we had a whole new group of people. It’s amazing, you’re five years into a business and you all the sudden have the opportunity to reach a whole new marketplace that has never had you before. We’re getting amazing feedback. That was a highlight, obviously there’s lots of lowlights.
I learned that I’m definitely doing what I love. As tough as it was, it was great to be down to the core team, put out great food and give great customer service. People really enjoy everything and are being really appreciative. Customers on the whole are very, very kind and considerate and thoughtful. We did whatever we had to to make sure our customers felt safe with coming out to support us.
I’m looking forward to traveling again. I can’t wait to get down to New York. Usually I’m down in Austin at least once a year because I have so many friends in Texas. I can’t wait to go on vacation, dine out, hug people. It’s been a year of people being cooped up, and now when they get outside they’re kind of awkward. People have forgotten how to socialize normally, so I’m hoping that people get back to normal pretty quickly. I’m looking forward to just being out and not having to go to work and come home and lock yourself up and not see people and not have dinners and see friends and just operate generally. I’ve got family members who still haven’t seen or held my daughter.
There are people cooking barbecue all over the world, and that whole circle of people is getting smaller and smaller. Regardless of how many miles are between us, it’s nice to see that I think everyone is going to make it through this time. It’s been tough for everybody, but I think everyone who makes it through this and is strong after this is going to realize what makes them function and what makes them click and will hopefully make them better going forward.