Aspiring entrepreneurs try to solve a problem or fill a gap in the marketplace, hoping their hunch strikes a chord.
For Mark Kupfert and Daniel Suss, the void was a great, big culinary one.
It surfaced when the long-time pals toured North America with their indie band, the Lovely Feathers, after graduating from McGill.
On the road, they were frustrated and appalled by the dearth of healthy, affordable and quickly prepared food options. “The healthiest food was from Subway, which had a lot of processed stuff,” recalls Suss, BA’05, LLB’09.
Kupfert longed for an eatery like the one he and Suss had frequented as students in their native Montreal. “We would go to this vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres, a lot. I loved that place and wondered, ‘Why can’t I have this food everywhere,’” says Kupfert, BA’06.
Kupfert and Suss turned their personal hunger for plant-based, minimally processed, gluten-free food into a burgeoning vegan, quick-service Toronto restaurant business. Their Kupfert & Kim chain now has six locations in Toronto and one in Montreal. In 2013, Kupfert was keen to open a restaurant and Suss, while articling at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Toronto, had noticed the lack of fast, affordable vegan lunch and breakfast options in the financial district.
“When you have a good idea and see a hole in the market, you give it a shot if you’re passionate about the concept,” says Kupfert.
The first Kupfert & Kim opened in the PATH underground walkway at First Canadian Place. “We opened just after New Year’s. It went nuts. At first, we couldn’t keep up and were running out of food,” he says.
Finding and securing that first prime location was the biggest challenge they faced in starting the business. “It took a year to convince the landlord, Brookfield Properties, to lease this tiny 200-square-foot space to us,” explains Suss. “We were up against another potential tenant, and we had to give the Brookfield team a tasting and cooked a meal for them in their kitchen.”
The founders’ goal was to make fresh, healthy vegan food accessible, appealing, flavorful and fun – even for people who might be scared of it, or sometimes eat meat and wheat.
The clean, elegant Scandinavian design of Kupfert & Kim eateries with black and white, wood, stone and steel finishes – and hearty, signature Rainbow and Oaxaca bowl dishes displaying a vibrant array of colours – were an immediate hit.
“We opened four more in the financial district and one sit-down location at Spadina and Richmond,” says Suss. “The density of downtown Toronto is key to our success. Our restaurants are in places where lots of people are working and we make fresh, healthy eating convenient and affordable. It’s easy to pop in and pop out, so people can make Kupfert & Kim part of their daily walk.”
Kupfert’s passion for vegan food was kindled in the Suss family kitchen. “Daniel’s family was quite progressive in diet and that was my introduction to healthy eating growing up. They had quinoa in the home and his mom was into yoga before it was cool,” he says.
The years Kupfert and Suss spent as bandmates in the Lovely Feathers laid the foundation for their creative and practical synergy as friends and entrepreneurial partners in launching and operating their distinctive healthy food business. (Although the Lovely Feathers disbanded, Kupfert organizes occasional reunion performances as fundraisers.)
“The band cemented our friendship,” says Kupfert, guitarist, vocalist, fountain of ideas and operations guy.
“Mark would splash an idea. I would run with it, massage it and work out the kinks. That’s how it went for a new piece of music or a new menu item,” says Suss, piano player, vocalist and company controller, who draws on his legal expertise in obtaining permits, negotiating leases and drafting employment agreements.
Both Kupfert and Suss come from entrepreneurial families. They want to build on their success in downtown Toronto to expand into other markets. Two new restaurants in the GTA are planned for Yorkville and Vaughan, just north of the city. “Vaughan will be our first experiment in a dense suburban retail centre,” explains Suss.
The first Kupfert & Kim location outside Ontario opened on Oct. 1 in Old Montreal. “We have a partner there, which makes expanding outside Toronto easier,” says Kupfert.
The co-owners are trying out a variation on the brand, with the launch of Hello 123, a sit-down, plant-based restaurant that’s meatless but not completely gluten-free. The first location on Toronto’s Queen Street West is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a second is planned for Montreal.
Growing a good business requires vision and chutzpah. Kupfert and Suss are now setting their sights on a broader North American expansion. “We’re considering going the franchise route in larger and smaller cities in Canada and the U.S. You need to have someone fully invested on the ground to make it work,” says Kupfert.
It’s a bold idea to run with, but the Kupfert & Kim duo can undoubtedly draw on their experience auditioning new band members to find and vet potential franchise partners for their business.
“We don’t want to just hand out a franchise to anyone who can afford it. We want to maintain our emphasis on the quality of the food and the brand,” says Suss.