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Jeff Stober: ‘You’re gonna get back what you put into the universe’

Jeff Stober

David Gillespie

Jeff Stober is the founder and owner of the Drake Hotel in Toronto. The Drake and its offshoots – the Drake One Fifty restaurant, five Drake General Stores, Drake Devonshire Inn and the new food-focused Drake Commissary – employ more than 500 people.

I was always an entrepreneur. From the earliest of days, I had the traditional newspaper route. I had a window-washing company when I was 16 years old with a couple of friends in Montreal. I had a couple of businesses when I went to Western. I was always really entrepreneurially focused. I don't know where that comes from, quite frankly.

When I sold my computer consulting firm CNC Global, I had the idea of re-imagining an old beat up hotel on the edge of downtown. A lot of people thought it was well beyond downtown, but I saw it as part of downtown. The neighbourhood was already fully developed, to my mind. Gorgeous streets … beautiful artist loft buildings, all the artists and galleries were here. I was following in their footsteps.

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When The Drake opened the Drake One Fifty restaurant in the financial district, it spoke to the fact that we believe one of our prime missions with this company is the realization that there's a curious culture-seeker in everyone. I don't care if you're working on Queen Street, in the Junction, Prince Edward County, on Bay Street. Fundamentally, we're all creative people.

The Commissary is in [a] historic neighbourhood. There is huge artistic pedigree in that neighbourhood. It's in a beautiful old manufacturing building with great bones. We looked at the physical positioning of that building, between the Railpath and UP Express. You can bike and walk. We saw it as this really cool hub. MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] is going in next door, which is fantastic, and a lot of our fabricator friends are right around there.

The Drake is a community hub. That's what we do. In this instance [The Commissary], it's the notion of a culinary cultural hub where bakers and makers would interact directly with the customer face-to-face and people would see the means of production. We would make everything from scratch. We would bake, we would cure, we would smoke, we would ferment. It's really ambitious, but it also serves a tremendous business purpose within our ecosystem, supplying all our restaurants and creating a destination unto itself at The Commissary.

We don't see ourselves as a chain. We see ourselves as a collection of unique properties that are at once both integrated into the overall brand and, at the same time, highly unique and independent. You see that in our employee base. We're all highly unique individuals, many of whom come from arts and culture background. So, at the end of the day, the word chain is just not the type of word that we would consider ourselves aligning with in the slightest. It's distasteful, frankly. We see ourselves as a small collection of individual, deeply neighbourhood-focused and rooted establishments.

It takes a large village to build anything. It's about community engagement, authenticity, trustworthiness, love. It's such common sense that we need to treat everybody with the respect and love and the decency that they deserve, and great things should happen as a result. You're gonna get back what you put into the universe.

So many people been with us in the Drake properties companies for years. And any number of people with us at the Drake Hotel properties are from my old company. You need to have a capacity to build a community of like minds to empower people, to excite people, to be able to articulate a vision and share that vision. But at the end of the day, you've got to deliver. People are smart and everyone owns their personal brand. If they're gonna align their personal brand with yours, you better be doing some really good things for them, their family, their community.

We're staunchly, proudly Canadian. Everyone dreams of doing something in the [United] States. There are fabulous American cities but, at the end of the day, we've developed an amazing footprint in Canada. We're definitely looking at projects as we speak, but suffice to say we see a tremendous opportunity for the evolution of our brand of Canadiana, our quirk, our appeal, our sense of nostalgia. We're very experiential as a company and we think that there's more than enough room to grow in Canada and that's what we plan on doing.

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As told to Sarah Efron. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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