A little over a year after opening ensemble (850 Thurlow Street), chef and proprietor Dale MacKay closed ensemble and its sister restaurant, ensembleTap (990 Smithe Street), after dinner service on August 25. The winner of the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada says that high rent and stiff competition in downtown Vancouver is to blame.
“I learned quickly that opening a restaurant in the heart of Vancouver is something I should have done after building my business and expansion capital in markets that support my restaurant business plan,” MacKay stated in a news release Monday (August 27). “As it is in the Vancouver core, with the rents being so high and the market saturated with fabulous restaurants, I’d have to subsidize both operations far longer than makes good business sense.”
In a phone interview with the Straight, MacKay confirmed that rent on both spaces was $40,000 per month. He insists, however, that he does not believe that the locations, which previously housed other restaurants that closed, are bad spaces.
"I don't think that the space is cursed by any means," MacKay said, referring to ensemble's corner location off of Robson Street. "The space did me very well. Unfortunately, we opened another large restaurant in a big space, and it was too much."
MacKay opened ensemble, which served French-inspired dishes made with local ingredients, in May 2011. In December 2011, ensembleTap, which specialized in craft beers and high-quality pub food, opened its doors. Prior to opening both restaurants and competing on Top Chef Canada, MacKay honed his skills at several restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay and at the now-closed Lumière and db Bistro Moderne in Vancouver, where he was executive chef.
“I’m willing to fall on my own sword and admit I was wrong,” MacKay stated in the news release. “If seasoned restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud find it unprofitable to compete in Vancouver, it was bold of me to think I could make the math work any better. As the ‘for lease’ signs started going up all around me on Robson, I saw the writing on the wall and had to ignore my ego and make the best decision for myself and for my son.”
While MacKay hasn’t decided what he will do next, he says that he doesn't plan on opening another restaurant in Vancouver anytime soon. Instead, he may head to the Prairies, where he has family in Regina, and plans on maintaining his presence in Canada’s culinary scene.
“Being front of house in my restaurants and on tour for the [Food] network and for sponsors taught me so much about Canadians and really opened my eyes to our food and restaurant culture—saturated in major centres and sadly under-represented in most secondary and smaller markets,” he said. “I’d like to see that change someday soon, but for now I will concentrate my attention on several culinary efforts that I’ve been chipping away at since winning Top Chef Canada and also catch-up on some consulting projects.”
You can follow Michelle da Silva on Twitter at twitter.com/michdas.