Aaron Zack is on a roll. Part of the founding team at Snakes & Lattes (the mega-popular game board café founded by Ben Castanie), Zack launched Snakes & Lagers back in February, a 19+ gaming/restaurant/bar venue on College St. West that has been doing brisk business. Now, he, along with co-owners chef Ariel Coplan (former executive chef at Nyood), and Jacob Fox, is mid-renovation for Thoroughbred Food And Drink, a new multi-floor bar/restaurant at 304 Richmond St. West with plans to open mid-July. After a successful night at the Toronto Underground Market – where the Thoroughbred team enjoyed a lot of attention for their foie gras pop tarts and bison tongue sandwiches – Eater caught up with Zack who chatted up Thoroughbred's ambitious plans, why he thinks Canada has embraced game culture, teases the expansions yet to come, and why strangers from all over the world are trying to track him down.
How did you enjoy the Toronto Underground Market?
I thought it was very interesting. It was my first time at TUM. I was really happy to see how enthusiastic everyone who went was about food."
How did you get involved with Thoroughbred Food And Drink?
It's a concept that Ariel has been working on for a few years. He was my consulting chef at Snakes & Lagers. He approached me with this offer to join the team and I did because I'm very interested in getting into that aspect of the industry. It's about celebrating the diversity that is Toronto and approaching the flavours of our past as adults, kind of with a nostalgic eye.
Speaking of, were you a big pop tart eater?
Most of our recipes are from Ariel – so he designed these. But yea, all of us ate pop tarts as kids. I remember going to the grocery store a lot with my mom, and always begging her to let me have pop tarts and when she did it was always a unique experience because it wasn't something we had all the time.
Would you tell me more about Thoroughbred's Richmond Street location?
It's an old mansion house. Kind of the last piece of old Toronto on that strip, it seems, which is perfect for us. The first floor is going to be 55 seats and it's kind of an open concept bar area with food. And the second floor (which will open later) will have about 42 seats; it seems to be evolving into a little bit more of a refined dining experience. The first floor you go for drinks with food, and you go for food with drinks upstairs. And then we have plans to open the third floor. It's kind of open right now but we're thinking about turning it into a lounge.
Sounds like you're taking a page from People's Eatery, 416 Snack Bar's newly opened sister restaurant. Are you inspired by what they're doing?
Ariel has been good friends with the 416 team for some time. They're bringing the snack culture to Toronto. It's becoming very popular. I wouldn't say we're doing the same thing – we're not so much doing snacks and small plates – so much as approaching a restaurant with the energy of a bar. I'd definitely say they're helping to build the Toronto food scene. I think we're trying to do our own thing.
On top of renovating Thoroughbred, Snakes & Lattes is expanding again?
Snakes and Lattes is adding an addition room – a party room – that will also function as an overflow space. We're going to the back half of the business (at 604 Bloor West). From 600-604 is one building.
Snakes & Lattes keeps pushing west. How much further will it go?
I don't know. I guess we're taking our cue for Honest Ed's.
Where else will you expand?
We're looking to expand abroad. Oddly enough, since we started in 2010, there have been over nine board game businesses that have opened up in Canada but there's been maybe one in the U.S. With such a small population here, there's such a huge influx, whereas in the U.S., where the population is ten times as ours, there hasn't been too much. I mean, there's always been places in the U.S. that have had board games, but there's nobody doing exactly what we're doing.
Zack has more information but, for now, is keeping his cards close to his chest.
Why do you think that's the case?
I'm not entirely sure; the fact that we started here. We were the first in Canada to do it on this scale. I actually think we may have been the first in North America to do it on this scale. There's also the fact that Canada has a stronger connection to Europe than the U.S. does and a lot of board game culture comes out of Europe, especially out of Germany. Germany has the oldest game publishing house in the world called Ravensburger (Founded in 1884 by Otto Maier). The fact that Ben (Castanie) came from Europe; a combination of us signing up here. But I mean, I'm surprised it hasn't gone larger in the U.S. There's four (game board cafes) in Toronto – there was a fifth that closed down; there's one in Hamilton; there's one in Sudbury; there's one planning on opening in London; one in Halifax; one in Montreal; one in Ottawa, with a second opening up; one in Victoria; something similar in Vancouver; and there's guys who are talking about opening one up in Alberta. There's just a lot going on.
Do they all come to you and say: "Hey, what's your formula?"
Some did. Some looked at us and said: "We're going to do the exact opposite." It seems like everything has been in reference to us. We get a lot of Americans asking us questions – a lot of questions internationally: South Africa, Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, Australia. It's surprising.
With so much success expanding the gaming café idea, do you have similar plans to expand Thoroughbred?
We're definitely looking to open up around the city. But it's so early on; we're just focusing on the restaurant. (Down the road) The idea is to open up complimentary spaces that work with the restaurant but are different from the restaurant. Not so much franchising as creating spaces around the city that makes sense as a whole.