The manager with the Midas touch
Meet Robin Wynne, prolific ops man with a musical past
By MARTA S
It’s a raucous Saturday night. I’m guest bartending at Parkdale’s Polynesian-themed restaurant, Miss Thing’s, sharing a well with its GM, Robin Wynne. During a rare moment of calm — when the printer isn’t spitting out reams of tickets lined with orders for Robin’s original, tropical cocktails — Robin conducts a little test on me.
On the bar before us, he places a humble rocks glass — the glassware every seat is set with to keep our guests watered — next to a delicately etched cocktail glass.
“What’s the difference between these two?” he asks me with a sly look.
Being the smartass that I am, I grin and shrug. “One is a rocks, and one is a coupe?”
Robin shakes his head seriously. “This,” he says pointing at the rocks glass, “is hospitality. This,” he gestures at the coupe, “is bartending. Which one do you think is more important in running a successful business?”
We spend the next few moments immersed in a serious conversation about the importance of hospitable service, and Robin seems pleased to hear that I share his beliefs.
“It’s important not to let the bartending or mixology aspect of service today overshadow delivering an excellent guest experience,” he elaborates. “I don’t care how original the cocktail you’re crafting is. If you get lost in this,” he points at the coupe again, “you’ll alienate your guests, and they won’t come back. What’s the point? To make yourself feel more important? That’s getting it backwards.”
Though a soft-spoken, kind, and highly approachable fella, when Robin Wynne — with his 20-plus years of industry experience — shares his philosophies on service with you, you listen. There’s a reason — many reasons — he’s one of the most highly regarded restaurant operations men working in the Toronto scene today.
Robin has a sharp eye for service workers getting lost in their own egos, and loathes the new trendier-than-thou attitude that seems to be creeping into the service scene. Although he’s seen as a “startender” himself, delivering gracious and genuine service to his guests remains — without question — the most important thing to him and to every business he’s run.
And believe me — he’s run a lot of them. (Oh, and he’s also had a career as an internationally touring musician. But we’ll get to that later.)
As I learn when we sit down together during off-hours one afternoon, Robin was born with a bit of a Midas touch when it comes to hospitality.
From bobsledding to board calling
He was also born prematurely. “While my dad was off in Africa working, my mom was shoveling snow in the driveway and it induced labour, so I popped out about a month early,” he shares with a grin.
Robin and his parents are the first Canadian generations in their families (who are originally from the UK). Robin’s father worked for a large electrical engineering company and the job required him to travel extensively. The family toured around quite a bit throughout Robin’s childhood, even living in Kenya for a number of years. “Traveling like that gives you crazy perspective on life,” he says.
The family eventually settled in Guelph, where Robin attended John McCrae public school. Little Robin had a very unique vision for his future.
“In John McCrae they had this yearbook called the Torch, and they’d ask ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ In my grade three yearbook, my answer was, ‘I want a be a bobsledder.’ It was so random!” he recalls with a laugh. “I don’t know why it was, but I was fascinated with bobsledding. I remember watching the Olympics and thinking, ‘That’s so cool! I want to do that!’ Maybe I just have a thirst for adrenaline.”
It might be that thirst for adrenaline that led Robin to excel at his first job in the service industry — working in a bustling kitchen at the age of 15. He skipped the usual first step of dishwashing and headed straight into making salads and desserts at a restaurant in Guelph called Legends Tap & Grill. Robin had an immediate knack for the work.
“I moved up the line really quickly,” he says. “By 18, I was supervising and board calling and running a shift in the kitchen.”
Soon after, Robin found work in the kitchen of a Red Devil, one of the many chains owned by the Prime Restaurants corporation. “When I went there it was a whole new ballgame — a whole new system of standards,” he recalls. But he moved effortlessly through the line there as well, and was eventually promoted to sous chef — all while still in high school.
“As soon as I was out of school, I was the full-on kitchen manager.” Despite his young age, he quickly became the company’s systems superstar, taking to the corporate training modules readily. “I’ve always loved that aspect of [this job],” he tells me.
So began Robin’s decade-long career with Prime.
“[The property I worked at] became the corporate training store, because we were number one in sales,” Robin recalls with an inkling of pride. “Everyone was coming through our store — beverage directors, managers, kitchen managers. This was when I was 18, 19, 20-years-old, and I was training 40-somethings on our company’s systems and standards.”
Robin’s acumen for training higher-ups got him a position on the corporate training team. He spent the next few years traveling across Canada opening restaurants and pubs for Prime, making the switch from BOH to FOH management along the way.
Then Robin was sent to Toronto to help whip some of Prime’s less-than-stellar properties in the city into shape. “Prime put me up in a really ‘fancy’ hotel at Dundas and Jarvis,” he says with a wry smile. Despite the modest digs, “that experience solidified my want to be in Toronto. And that’s how I ended up here.”
Escaping the ugly side of corporate
“But I was looking for my next move,” Robin continues, “and I was being courted, at that time, by Milestones.”
Unfortunately, with his move to Milestones, Robin experienced the bad side of corporate.
“I just got a really bad taste for the corporate lifestyle there,” he explains, “where everything’s caught in red tape, and you have no freedom to cater towards your guests. I became almost anti-corporate at that point.”
So he left, and went in for an interview at a “new, up-market gastropub” on King West that was looking for a manager.
Wouldn’t you know it — that very bar had originally been a Prime Restaurant pub (a Fionn MacCool’s, to be exact), and was in the process of defranchising from the company. The whole ordeal seemed ironically symbolic of his career path at the time.
“I had this unique opportunity to help them rebrand — work their way from the ground up and come up with a new concept that worked on King West.” With Robin’s help, the pub found its feet and became Fynn’s of Temple Bar.
Just as he had taken so easily to working in the kitchen, Robin found his way handily behind the wood.
“I had never bartended before then, really,” he tells me, which I find hard to imagine considering his now-extensive knowledge of all things booze. “I was bar managing, but I had my culinary background, so I understood how flavours worked. On Sundays, I started bartending because it was quieter on King Street, and I could make some extra money. From that, I built up a lot of cool nights, like doing a new secret cocktail list every Sunday. I started making new drinks every week, and spending my own time making syrups and bitters.”
Through the recession of 2008, which caused the landscape of the area to change dramatically — advertising agencies closed; condos, clubs, and bars moved into the spaces left behind — Robin began hosting a slew of unique events at Fynn’s, making the pub a well-respected, integral part of the growing hospitality scene on King West. Robin’s reputation extended into the good graces of all the businesses popping up around his pub.
“For a time, I felt like the king of King Street!” he says with a chuckle. “I knew every bar manager, general manager, security worker, and bartender in the area. I didn’t wait in any lines, I didn’t pay any cover, I didn’t pay for any drinks. There was so much industry hospitality.
“But that changed,” he continues with a twinge of sadness. “The club industry boomed, and the people that were coming in were less Bay Streeters in suits with money, and more of a 905 incursion. There was a lot of fights, drugging, abuse, gun shots. But the pub still carried on and actually got better and better.”
But all good things must come to an end, and Robin — feeling he had given everything he could to his beloved Fynn’s — left to explore other opportunities.
The big burn-out
Robin accepted a call from Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants to come on board a new project the company was lending a hand to. Michael Bonacini had been (and is) a judge on MasterChef Canada, and the time had come for the show’s first winner, Eric Chong, to open his own restaurant. This would be R&D, which O&B had agreed to support logistically.
“I met with Michael. My background is part Scottish and Welsh, and he’s Welsh. I sat down with him, talking for, like, two hours. He’s the nicest dude — so honest,” Robin remembers. “And [O&B Director of Business Operations] Cliff [Snell] was great, too. I felt like this was just a great team to work with.”
But R&D struggled to find its identity at first. Robin did everything he could to make the fledging business take off. In the end, the work proved dangerously demanding.
“I was working 90 hours a week. I was burnt out, with low sales,” Robin shares. The stress and grind began to manifest themselves physically. Robin wound up in hospital, his run-down body struggling to fight off a bout of simple strep throat that had mutated into a serious bacterial infection.
For five days he laid hooked up to intravenous meds. He’d dropped 35 pounds in a month, and was severely dehydrated, his kidneys nearly shutting down trying to fight off the illness, causing temporary paralysis in his back.
Understandably, Robin stepped away from the business and spent some much-needed time healing. Or, as he describes it with a shrug, “I tapped out.”
It’s amazing the man didn’t “tap out” sooner. What’s even more incredible is that throughout all those years of craziness — all that pressure to run kitchens, save corporate stores, implement new systems in a myriad of environments — this guy also managed to have an international DJ’ing career.
DJ Global Killer’s global tours
If you have no experience within Toronto’s service industry but you were a club kid back in the early- to mid- ’00s, there’s a good chance you might know Robin as DJ Global Killer. What started as a high school fascination with a friend’s turntables eventually propelled Robin to national and international DJ tours back when he was working simultaneously with Prime Restaurants.
He’s played all across Canada, and throughout the UK, Japan, Thailand, and China. His tracks are disco- and funk-fueled, and though his touring days are behind him, he still dabbles in music production.
His love for tunes was readily apparent as we bartended together at Miss Thing’s. His gleeful response to nearly every track that came on in the restaurant was, “Oh man, this is my jam!”
Mentors, caesars, and stories from the past
You’d think that someone who’s achieved so much within the industry (and been a globally-touring DJ) would have some kind of a hero complex, but Robin’s one hell of a kind and humble cat. He’s always quick to give credit where credit is due.
He lists Kevin Brauch (Thirsty Traveler, Superstar Chef Challenge) as a mentor, and the man largely responsible for getting Robin into cocktail competitions (of which he’s won many). “One night Kevin said, ‘You know what? You know how to make a really good caesar — you should enter a competition!’ And over time, he encouraged me to keep competing.”
Kevin was right — caesars are one of Robin’s passions, and actually the crux of one of his favourite service stories. He shares a couple of them with me below (they involve a couple of famous Irishmen, as well as friend and bartender Charlie Lamont).
“Sandy came into Fynn’s once and I had a panic attack. ‘What do I make her? What do I make her?!’” he remembers with a big laugh. “When it came to cocktails, she was like a Jedi master and I was a young Padawan! But I played around with a few spirit-forward drinks, gave her one, and she was like, ‘This is the bomb.’ I was like, ‘Yessss!’”
Sandy and Robin have forged a great friendship since then, growing so close that they’ve even talked about opening up a beach-side bar together in Portugal.
Perfecting balance in Parkdale
That’s just one of many things on the docket for this loveable guy.
He runs a beverage consulting business (Savor Bar & Cocktail Consulting) with Nishan Nepulongoda from Blowfish. He does brand work for Mount Gay rum. He wants to elevate Miss Thing’s to have the biggest rum portfolio in the country. And he still bartends five nights a week.
But Robin tells me that accepting the GM position at Miss Thing’s has allowed him to achieve the balance necessary to focus his energy on all these projects without going through another dangerous burn-out.
“I love working here. And Parkdale is such an awesome neighbourhood. It’s got such soul, such heart,” he says warmly. “The people of Parkdale were here before the restaurants were, and that’s important — that they’re able to stay.
“When you look at other neighbourhoods like King West, Ossington, the Junction — they’re all changing. When you say that anyone can come into a neighbourhood because ‘there’s cheap rent right now’, then five years later there’s way too many restaurants, you bring in the wrong crowd, you drive out the locals, and then suddenly the neighbourhood’s soul is gone,” he elaborates.
“Being here is very humbling.”
And having Robin here is awesome.
Marta S is a freelance writer and bartender living and working in Toronto. If you or someone you know would like to be profiled in The Professionals, email her at email@example.com.
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