Few establishments are as synonymous with Calgary’s downtown as Centini Restaurant and Lounge. For 19 years it has been the gathering place for this city’s business crowd, serving gourmet Italian and continental European cuisine in an elegant and private setting, with professional, yet distinctly Calgary, service. As this city has thrived, so too has Centini. Today, in the face of an increasingly challenging business environment, the seminal restaurant is taking the lead in charting the new normal for its employees and supplier ecosystem, as well as the community.
It’s a role Chevonne Miller-Centini, restaurant director and proprietor, is proud to take up, and one she evaluates every day.
“Interpreting how things are going is my job,” she explains from her restaurant, located on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue downtown. “I come in every day and reframe the answer to that question. You need different kinds of leadership for different kinds of times. And we’ve certainly seen the times change quite a bit.”
The COVID pandemic and lockdown is a challenge unlike any Centini has faced before, and though it has been very difficult, Miller-Centini focuses on the silver linings. “It gave us an opportunity to pause and reconsider opportunities we never had time to pursue before,” she reflects. “Maybe in some ways we’ll look back on this as a bit of a lifeline, because we were able to plant our feet in some new pastures and get some new things going.”
The hospitality industry in Calgary, along with many others, had already experienced five tough years prior to 2020. “We haven’t really seen a great year in Calgary since 2014,” she laments. “Many small businesses were struggling and waiting for the worm to turn, and then COVID hit.”
For her, it was an opportunity to launch an online store for delivery service. “When the Premier closed us for in store dining on March 27th, we immediately pivoted to a delivery model,” she explains. “It wasn’t hard because we’d been playing around with the concept for a number of years using third party services like DoorDash and Skip the Dishes. Like any business, we knew that selling online was the future.”
Centini took a pragmatic approach to the online store: “I thought let’s force ourselves to get it up and going and if we’re going to fail, let’s fail fast and inexpensively. That’s difficult for me because I’m a perfectionist. But experimenting and launching quickly is really key. You have to experiment, but not bet the farm.”
With a core team of four remaining employees (all the rest were laid off in March), Centini’s online store launched in 10 days and offered both regular menu items and family-style catering meals. A friendly neighbour call to the Silver Dragon restaurant resulted in a delivery driver. “We built quite a solid going concern, so much so that by Mother’s Day we had returned our entire kitchen to their posts,” she says with pride.
In-store dining resumed in late May in accordance with Alberta Health Services’ capacity and health safety requirements and, thanks in part to the federal wage support, the staff count is now back up to pre-COVID numbers. “But there are still a lot of people still working from home and business is far from back to normal,” she points out.
The self-described “Chief Morale Officer,” Centini notes it’s been an interesting leadership challenge, to which she is bringing all of her past experiences to bear.
Raised on a Charolais cattle ranch near Lacombe, Miller-Centini studied journalism at Concordia University in Montreal before spending 10 years there as an entrepreneur in the publishing industry. Her publication was ultimately acquired by the National Post group. She then worked briefly in the TV and film industry before specializing in investor relations.
She met top chef Fabio Centini in Montreal and the two moved together to Calgary in the late ’90s. While Fabio opened Centini Restaurant in 2002, Chevonne launched a consulting firm focused on investor relations for biotech and technology firms in the west. While Fabio Centini built the restaurant, including an award winning wine list, Chevonne traveled the country working to help executive teams raise capital, figure out business obstacles and chart a successful path to rapid growth. A Queen’s MBA and a certified management consultant designation capped off her educational training.
Miller-Centini’s evolution from “maybe-not-so-silent-investor” in Centini to leader of the company happened over a number of years. An avid baker, sausage maker and cook, she started with building an onsite bakery for the restaurant, then moved into modifying the desserts and eventually assumed the top management role.
“I’m using all of my experience, skills and background here at the restaurant,” she explains. “I know enough about many kinds of businesses and have the right reference points to grab the wheel here for what is clearly a very different era. I provide the guidance, inspiration and that gentle push to keep going. It’s harder to run a restaurant that’s busy-slow-busy-slow than it is to run a restaurant that’s busy all the time. To keep that energy level up is quite challenging.”
To achieve a positive vibe and keep “the magic going in the dining room”, she devotes time to talking with her team about where they need to go as a company and what they need to do to emerge from this experience strong. “It is clear to me that there is a re-interpretation of hospitality,” she offers. “At its core it’s about meeting the guests wherever they are. A very customized experience. To take a very granular view of the customer and fashion everything to them. Our guests will remember how we make them feel and we focus on that intently.”
At the same time, she sees luxury food – a market in which Centini has always thrived – as being redefined from fine dining to made-from-scratch food, no corners cut: “We don’t do this work because it is easy,” she says, “but because it is better, and because we can all be proud of making it in-house ourselves.” This, she believes, is something everybody wants: “I’ve tried to make the restaurant more accessible. I want people to know that they can come in and have a great plate of pasta for $19. Younger people, people with a mortgage, with young kids. I want to send out a hip and sexy, accessible, come-on-in-with-your-kids vibe that says, ‘We’re not here to gut you, we’re here to work with you.’”
To this end, Centini’s wine program has been gradually overhauled to include more affordable wines. “Everybody’s on a budget these days. So we’re buying Bordeaux and Merlot that we can sell for $50 to $100, rather than $800. We’ve realized that being exclusively in the very rarefied luxury market doesn’t serve you well in the long-term. You have to broaden the offerings to include everyone.”
Centini also plans to continue to build the company’s delivery service: “Direct to customer, direct to corporate. When people are socially distancing at work, they might want to have the meal at work rather than go out for lunch or dinner. We’re going to meet those needs.”
The grocery category is another space she is looking at. “Grocery stores are trying to provide restaurant quality meals on a takeout basis and we’re interested in seeing how we can partner with them to do that,” she says. Though she declined to name any partners, she admits she has her eye on one top retailer.
“Post COVID, we’re going to have to change the way we approach the whole food sector,” she continues. “The fault lines in the supply chain are visible. We need to grow more food in our province. There’s no reason why produce needs to be trucked in from 2,500 miles away. I see a role for us to play in terms of taking those ingredients and transforming them into a value-added product.” For example, she notes that as the number one wheat grower in the world, Alberta should be the number one pasta producer in the world.
“I see enormous opportunity in the ag food sector, if we position ourselves correctly,” Centini continues. “This is where I’m trying to focus – not only on the day-to-day run of the restaurant with our very circumscribed cashflow, but the big picture opportunities, so that five years from now, we can be more of an integrated food company.”
For 2021, Miller-Centini is projecting business to be significantly down from last year. “I’m unapologetic,” she says. “We did nothing wrong. We’ve adapted and kept working. I’ve had a lot of tough conversations in the last two quarters. One of the biggest issues we’ve faced is the denial of business interruption insurance. We have paid astronomical fees for business interruption insurance over the years, and when we needed it the most, all the major insurers denied coverage for what is the largest insurable event in history.”
She is encouraged by chefs/restaurateurs in the U.S. like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud who have combined forces to litigate the issue, both in the courts and the public arena. For her part, Centini is lending her voice to the local fight. “I have to speak up and say that what’s happening to us in hospitality is not fair,” she says. “We really are at the whip end of the stick on this one. As an entrepreneurial sector, we’re not used to asking for government help like aerospace or automotive, but as a sector that represents four per cent of Canadian GDP, we’re going to need some help if this pandemic continues to play out like it is. Our sector is going to need a long runway for recovery.”
In particular, she notes that without the federal wage support, she would not have been able to retain her staff count. “Irrespective of what unfolds next year, we’re anticipating three to five difficult business years ahead in Calgary,” she warns. “But what separates the men from the boys in this business is your meticulousness, your attention to detail and, in no small measure, your business acumen. You can lose money across a hundred different cost centers in a restaurant. Even when everything goes to plan, there is little margin for error.”
As for her own restaurant, Miller-Centini remains optimistic and ready for whatever challenges or opportunities the future holds. “I always feel like we punch way above our weight,” she reflects. “I’m incredibly proud of how our team is able to bring it day after day. The magic we manage to create is always jaw-dropping for me. Twice a day, the doors open for service and regardless of what’s going on, the show starts. It’s like Broadway. No matter what we’re short on, we make do. We’re grateful and humble and doing whatever it takes to survive.”