John Belknap once read a story of a man who saved up all year long to go out to a new restaurant. Impressed by the service at a restaurant the previous year, the man chose to return to the same place the following year.
“I always try to tell my staff we want to try to bring that guy back the same way,” he says. “You’re out everyday kind of on stage and you might get that one guy who comes in once a year and what kind of impression is he going to get if you’re having a bad day and don’t want to talk to him? It’s kind of sad so always pretend he’s the guy that comes in once a year and you’re trying to get him back.”
Although Belknap has already been operating an oyster house downtown for the last four years, in October he opened John & Sons on Balmoral Avenue near St. Clair Avenue and Yonge Street.
Inspired by the Port Perry area farms of his youth, which featured “and sons” in the name, he incorporated his boys in the restaurant’s namesake to involve them in the journey.
“I hope it’s something that I can pass onto my sons one day, to get them involved with at least,” he says. “I remember my dad’s office, he worked downtown in finance and I’d be excited to go because he’d have Coke in his fridge so now hopefully they’ll come down and go like, ‘oh my God. What can I have here?’ ”
In addition to the oyster staples, the menu also features a variety of other options like fish and chips, salads, scallops, poutine, mussels and a tuna BLT. As traditional oyster houses center on a bar, he designed the space to focus around the bar and oyster bed. Teaming up with Brad Denton of Pencil Design, he says the goal was to have a nautical theme without plastering it in lobster traps and ships.
While the downtown location near Bay Street attracts more of a business clientele, he sees more of customers’ personal lives at this location since many guests come in with their family and friends.
“The service industry in general is filled with pretty eclectic people who all have a story behind them and getting to know them, hearing their stories and the staff you work with, that’s always a lot of fun,” he says. “Everyday I learn something new about someone.”
Carrying on the tradition that oyster houses are warm and welcoming, he hopes customers feel at home and wants them to know they care about the food, the oysters and the staff.
Describing the decision to open his own restaurants, Belknap says it was a series of baby steps like investigating and writing a business plan.
“Then before you know it you’re signing a lease like, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ and then you don’t have time to look back,” he says. “Like a lot of businesses if you knew all the challenges going into it before a lot of people probably wouldn’t do it but it’s part of the journey. It’s been fun, I have no regrets, I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t this.”
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