‘McSheep’ makes hay in Yorkville

Martin McSkimming has been on a roller coaster ride with watering hole Hemingway's

With no offence to anyone, you could call him The King of Yorkville.

He’s a New Zealand expat in a 20 year old ponytail harnessing a shock of milky hair. He assumes the nickname McSheep, an appropriate moniker given his birthland. For 30 years now, despite some pitfalls along the way, Martin McSkimming has been the owner of Hemingway’s, a restaurant and bar at the heart of Yorkville playfulness at 142 Cumberland St.

It’s a Toronto institution that’s host to students, condo-construction workers, Bay Street executives, Down Unders, tourists, celebrities and plain regulars from their 20s to their 70s. Amidst the glitz and glam of tony shops and pricy restaurants that encompass Cumberland, Avenue, Bay, Bloor, Bellair, Hazelton and Old York Lane, Hemingway’s is a simplistic, inexpensive and ultra-popular venue 365 days a year.

The Stanley Cup has been there a few times. Actor Russell Crowe was there while filming Cinderella Man. Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins and Mike Myers are among other film stars who have wandered over from nearby hotels.

This story dates back to 1970 when McSkimming decided to leave his homeland and come to the Americas on the Greek liner Ellinis. He arrived in Toronto with his then-wife on what he called a “working holiday”. He thought he might stay for two years, but he’s still here.

A chartered accountant by trade, he was the controller for eight years for magazine distributor Gordon and Gotch. But he “didn’t want to be an accountant … wanted to be my own boss.”

“You follow your dream,’’ he says.

McSkimming says when he and original partner, John Vaughn, bought the place and named it Hemingway’s he didn’t realize the connection between the name and storied author Ernest Hemingway, who had once written for the Toronto Star.
Unlike the famed author, the restaurant’s prospect of success looked grim.

“Word on the street was that we’d last three months, because it was a tough business,’’

McSkimming said. “It was after the hippie era and I had no experience in costing booze and food.’’

McSkimming and Hemingway’s proved the doubting Thomases wrong. Starting with two lines of draught beer, Hemingway’s was a healthy operation, and remained so until the early 1990s, when it began to see red ink.

Around that time, McSkimming decided to purchase the building itself, for $2 million, a move that made financial matters trickier. He also had a stake in Scalliwags, a bar at Yonge and St. Clair that was enduring its own financial problems.

“We went through some tough times — we were close to bankruptcy,’’ McSkimming admits. “We were over-leveraged with a lot of debt.

“We sat down for days with the banks. We could have been pushed over. There were a lot of sleepless nights.’’

McSkimming got his financial woes straightened out and, as they say, the rest is history.

“Martin went through tough times,” says his long-time friend, Bob Cowan, the original operator of the Bellair Café in Yorkville. “When he struggled it was a real struggle: interest rates were up and the banks were on him.”

Licensed to serve only 80 people in 1980, Hemingway’s has raised that to 500 and now serves 24 lines of draught. Chicken fingers, breaded chicken, calamari and clam chowder are hits. There are seven seating areas, including a second-floor patio, open year round, with heating in winter and misting in the summer.

McSkimming, 66, is there each and every day, keeping employees on their toes and chatting up customers, even late at night when he could be up the street at home with his feet up.

“A lot of places in Yorkville have been so trendy that they have short lives, but not Hemingway’s,’’ Cowan said. “Hemingway’s was never pretentious.”

“Martin is a very reasonable, accessible person, very honest with a great personality,’’ says Dominica native Augustus Antoine, who has been with him for those 30 years, first as a sous chef before working up to head chef.

About this article:

By: Danny Gallagher
Posted: Mar 24 2011 3:17 pm
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto