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Off the greasy path

by Archives March 24, 2009

Working out of the tiny kitchen of a McGill ghetto apartment, Le Cordon Bleu culinary school graduate Shawn Dascal recalls having very little room to manoeuvre.
“I was cooking with feet planted, while I pivoted around to different areas of the kitchen to get my ingredients,” he said. “It was crazy.”
The apartment where Dascal operated belongs to Robert Kaufman, co-founder of Chef On Call, a gourmet food delivery service based in the McGill student ghetto area. The service was created to offer a healthy food delivery option at a price that caters to a student budget. As a former Concordia student, the John Molson School of Business graduate recognized a niche for this type of student-focused food delivery.
“We ordered food almost every day,” said Kaufman, 23. “But with the price we were paying and comparing that with the quality of the food, we’d still order it, but we weren’t happy with what we were getting.”
He set about developing the concept with his friend Jacky Finkelstein, a McGill Economics student who handles the company’s finances (and occasionally filled in as a substitute driver), and roommate Matt Cohen. Hiring long-time friend Dascal to design and implement a menu, Kaufman began experimenting with the concept. On Jan. 5, Chef on Call was set up and began receiving orders.
Cohen joked about the smells produced by a moderately ventilated apartment kitchen continuously cooking gourmet food between two p.m. and four a.m.:
“That was the worst part by far, I had to keep my jacket in my friend’s apartment, otherwise no one would talk to me when I went out,” he said.
Fortunately, the food that was coming out proved popular amongst Chef On Call’s student clientele. The company kept receiving a rising number of orders, from between 16 and 20 in the first week to an average close to 50 per day by the third week. By Jan. 23 the demand began to put a strain on the cooking equipment, prompting a temporary closure of the service in order to relocate to a renovated kitchen on Sherbrooke Street.
“We had one personal fryer doing thousands of batches of fries,” said Kaufman. “We would go through about 50 pounds of fries each day.”
Aside from gourmet-style selections of desserts, salads, pastas, sandwiches, burgers, and poutines, Chef on Call’s menu also features a light-section. Most of the meals were chosen by Dascal, though the light section and few other menu items were included as a result of feedback from friends and customers on the service’s Facebook page.
“I also did some peer research to get feedback on what people wanted to have at home, but also what they couldn’t get from regular delivery,” said Dascal. “I asked myself ‘what would I want to eat, and what would my friends want to eat, but that they would usually have to drive 30 minutes to get.'”
As a project spearheaded by former and current students from Concordia and McGill, Chef on Call offers an example of a peer-targeted student entrepreneurship. Through its growing presence in the McGill community, the company was approached by a McGill marketing research class, which conducted surveys and two focus groups designed to provide a clearer picture of what students wanted in their delivery/take out options.
“We became big students of the market,” said Finkelstein. “We didn’t know anything about the restaurant business of the food industry, so we focused on testing this concept with other students.”
In the future, Chef on Call will also incorporate a youth-minded structure by offering internships.
“At the moment we’re in talks with Lasalle College, who run a culinary course out of their school,” said Dascal. “They’ll be bringing in interns to work and to learn the operations of a restaurant.”
In developing the company, Kaufman gives credit to entrepreneurial resources for helping the team learn the intangibles of starting up a business.
“Youth Employment Services have been a huge help,” he said. “They have counselling services and people who are experienced that you can go talk to about everything from managing your money to incorporation details, like dividing shares and creating legal stipulations to protect your business.”
Faced with a looming economic recession, The Chef on Call team is nevertheless feeling confident in the staying power of their business. Though sales slowed down last December, delivery and takeout restaurants have been the among only food industry segments to show any commercial sales growth in 2008, according to the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
“That’s why our business is so nice, it’s recession proof,” said Finkelstein. “After all, we are catering to students who no matter what are going to eat and no mater what will be living in this same area.”
Ray Klonsky, a Concordia communication grad whose promotion company SaintWoods handles marketing for Chef on Call, recognized the recession’s dampening effects on graduate job prospects.
“I know people who’ve graduated working at Starbucks, and this is the best work they could find. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have projects coming out of university.”
Though the economic slowdown can be blamed for the company’s inability to secure a bank loan, Klonsky feels this consumer-driven and non-traditional method of food retail has the opportunity to establish a market foothold and flourish.
“Any business needs cash flow, and when banks are closed and cash flow’s frozen it is difficult, so we’ve had our setbacks and can expect more down the road. But I believe we have a winning formula,” said Klonsky, adding that at approximately $30,000, Chef on Call was still a relatively inexpensive start-up business.
“I’ve also talked to venture capitalists, and they tell me that if you are young and you can flourish in a recession; when you come out of a recession people are definitely going to notice that. And I think that’s what drives us even more.”
With operations set to resume in time for exams, Chef on Call’s team will be offering free desserts as part of their opening day promotion. Although they’ll be seeking to hook the new customers’ sweet tooth with their specialty Pot de Cr

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