While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this series of interviews looks to gain insight into what makes some of British Columbia’s more interesting partnerships tick.
Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside clearly have a good thing going: together, they are the co-owners of not one, but three restaurants: Dachi, Elephant, and Hānai. And, as of today (Monday, December 12th, 2022) their first project together, Dachi celebrates four years as both a diner’s destination and neighbourhood haunt. As fans of their establishments, and appreciators of their ethos, we decided to catch up with the two and ask a few questions about what brought them together as business partners and how they got to this point…
Take us back to the beginning: where did you meet and how did your partnership begin?
Miki: Both Stephen and I were working at Miku. That’s where it began, but it was definitely an unlikely combination. I think we surprised a lot of people. We didn’t really start out as close pals. I didn’t even like Stephen.
Stephen: And I was indifferent to Miki.
How did you go from indifference to opening a restaurant?
Miki: When Miku made the move to open a Toronto location, both Stephen and I ended up moving to Toronto temporarily to be part of the opening team. All the Front of House folks that had come out from Vancouver to be on the opening team were living together (and putting in those crazy hours that you do when you are opening a restaurant). Under that kind of pressure, you get to know people, you bond. We both found that we really loved Toronto a lot. We both really fell in love with the independent restaurants that felt ‘of the place’ and we connected over that.
Stephen: For me, there were a couple of notable moments. I remember a particularly busy lunch service, we were passing each other on the floor saying, “How would you do this? How would you do that?” and the answers we gave each other just kept lining up. After that, there was a lot of meeting up in the park, lots of ‘theoretical’ conversations. We were feeling out how the other would approach a given situation. But it wasn’t a handshake and ‘Let’s do this!’ moment. It was slower… like, “Let’s take this step.” Then we’d take it, and it would work out, so we’d take another.
Miki: It was a bit of a game of ‘chicken’. We’d take the step of, say, incorporating the business. We would put the money down on that first step. And then we’d turn to each other and say, “OK, we’ve done that step, what’s next?” And then we’d do that. When you sign the lease, that’s a no turning back point, but up until then, we were dipping our toes in the water and seeing how deep we could wade out together.
“There wasn’t, and never has been, a grand idea of a big, successful money-making business. We are passionate about service, and about working behind the bar and on the floor.”
Stephen: But, although it was a game of ‘chicken’, we both very much had a clear vision of what Dachi would look and feel like, and we are both very proud of what Dachi is today – down to the floor plan.
Miki: Yes! We were very aligned on that. We’d draw a floor plan of what we wanted, and then hold up our floor plans to one another and bam! We’d both drawn the same thing!
Stephen: But we were pretty green. We didn’t even have a realtor. We thought it would be expensive, so we tried to figure it all out on our own (we didn’t know that we didn’t have to pay for a realtor if you are the buyer. We knew nothing). We looked at so many spaces. By the time we signed a lease, we hardly knew what hit us.
Did you at least sit down and share a glass in celebration?
Stephen: We got wasted! (Thank you to Romano at Pepino’s for that).
Miki: We went to Pepino’s and waited so long for a table. Romano just kept opening bottles… it was a big night.
Stephen: And when we arrived at our new space the next day to clean and start work – that was rough!
Miki: But we dug in. We really wanted to get open so that we could get to know the neighbourhood. The restaurant that had been here before us had been there for a long time, and the neighbourhood had gotten to know them. We didn’t want those people to think that this new restaurant that had moved in wasn’t for them. We wanted to give them time to get to know us.
Stephen: There wasn’t, and never has been, a grand idea of a big, successful money-making business. We are passionate about service, and about working behind the bar and on the floor. We thought, if nothing else, we have ourselves a job. We had a purpose.
Miki: And that’s how it started: serving people we loved to talk to and be around, and people we shared a similar love of food and drink with.
Is it that love of hospitality what motivated you to jump pretty quickly and clearly into other projects? (Ugly Dumpling, Elephant, Hanai…)
Stephen: Yes. But It didn’t feel like a jump, to be honest.
Miki: It also didn’t feel quick. That first year of Dachi was long and hard. It felt scary. It was so tumultuous. And then Covid hit, and that was a wake-up switch. We were so ‘there’ for it – not like we were ready for it, we were just so ‘on’, and deep into a “Don’t Drown” mentality, that we just kept moving.
Stephen: Yeah, I remember that mentality. Every January, we take a little time to brainstorm about what we want to do for the year. January 2020 we were going to invest in a reservation system, we were going to build up a mailing list. February was looking good. We were feeling strong. We didn’t want to let the momentum go. We didn’t want to let March knock the wind out of our sails (it did – there were many tears in March of 2020!) I mean, we thought there would be other things down the line, but we didn’t think ‘this’ was the time.
And then Ugly Dumpling happened.
Miki: With Ugly Dumpling, we loved Darren Gee’s food. We were pals. We relied on each other a lot. We went there to eat a lot. He was a close colleague. He was on his own, which wasn’t what he expected, and he needed help.
Stephen: This was September 2020 and we were staring down the barrel of our first Covid winter – no patio. Service inside meant only being able to serve ten people at a time, with a staff of three. That was uncomfortable. With the timing of Darren needing help at Ugly, it made a little more sense to have Miki on the floor over there.
Miki: It was like a bit of labour relief. And as a restaurant that we loved, I knew I could be there to tell the story sincerely. It was just a good fit at the right time. But we knew Darren would be leaving (we just didn’t realize it would end up being as soon as it was), so that led us to Hānai.
Stephen: We knew our strength was service, not cooking. Instead of trying to hire someone to take over Darren’s kitchen, we decided to look for someone who wanted an opportunity to bring their vision to life. We knew Tess Bevernage and Thomas Robillard [owners/partners of Hānai Family Table]. We knew they were looking. So we approached them.
Miki: They are incredible and kind people with an interesting food story that got us really excited. For the location and the space, we just knew it would be a really good fit.
And with Elephant… [Chef] Justin Song-Ell was coming to Ugly a lot, and one day he just came up to me and said, “We should open a restaurant together.” And I thought, what a thing to say! And then on the way home, I phoned Stephen (we usually talked at the end of the night to compare notes). After I told him, Stephen said, “You’ll never guess, I just heard the darnedest thing: Gianmarco [Colannino] is looking to sell Trans Am.” I mean, what are the chances? The timing was crazy, for sure. But the space made total sense. Justin isn’t a guy that wants to manage a big staff. He needs to be the kitchen. [If you haven’t been to Elephant, the 18-seat restaurant has a small, ‘apartment-sized’ kitchen that is only really suited to one person.]
Stephen: It felt too right. So we approached him. We went to look at the space…And all of a sudden, we had another restaurant. We knew we had to get Elephant built right away because within a few months, we knew building out of Hānai was coming.
And then the dry cleaners next door to Dachi closed, and you took over that space to open a retail concept (Mucker Next Door) in November 2021?
Stephen: Yes, Mucker opened in November, Elephant opened in December, and Hānai opened in March. Six months of construction. Six months of hard work. Arguably, as hard as just making it through the first six months of Covid.
“There are so many barriers to entry in this city. Right now, all we want to do is build small, sustainable businesses. We want to build restaurants in a way that reflects the kind of place we want to work at, and the kind of place we want to go to as diners.”
That takes some serious teamwork. In terms of partnership, were you both just juggling everything or did you stick to defined, ‘official’ roles?
Stephen: I wouldn’t really say that there was (or is) anything official going on.
Miki: [laughing] What he means is that it’s been very natural.
Stephen: On the surface, one might think that Miki is ‘creative’ and I’m more of the ‘admin’ one, but that’s not true. We just handle what needs to be handled when it needs to be handled. It really doesn’t make any sense.
Miki: Oh, none of this makes any sense [pointing to Stephen, then herself, then back to Stephen], but we are both really proactive, so if something needs to get done, one of us just gets it done.
It felt like a big step to move from the consistency of being an employee to employer, but it was so incredibly rewarding, and we loved it so much. We just thought: if we can do it, other people can too. All the red tape and all the things we had to learn the hard way? We can share what we’ve learned, we can make it less hard for others so that they can do it as well… whatever resources they are lacking, we can share them.
Stephen: And each partnership works differently because each of the people involved brings their own set of skills.
Miki: …so it’s about sizing things up to determine: with the skills that you have, and the skills that we have, do we make a complete and viable restaurant business? Our goal is just to fill the holes of what our partners don’t do. It feels like in Vancouver there is so much single ownership. Whereas, in Montreal for example, we see so many businesses sharing ownership, and partnerships aren’t as rigid. Flexibility is necessary in an industry like this.
Stephen: We don’t care about gatekeeping ownership. If you were to ask someone in a larger business if what we are doing is wise, I’m pretty they’d say, ‘No’ … But Justin has a level of cooking that deserves to shine in a kitchen. In the places that we can contribute to making that happen, we want to. With Tess and Thomas, they built a really strong business – they just needed a home. We could help.
Stephen: Consider the opposite; try developing a restaurant concept that needs a chef and then try to keep that chef. It’s so often a burn-and-turn situation and, for the most part, it’s not working anymore. So we approach it like a puzzle. We ask ourselves: How can we build a team that works, do we have the necessary skills to make it happen.
Miki: There are so many barriers to entry in this city. Right now, all we want to do is build small, sustainable businesses. The kind of place we want to work at, and the kind of place we want to go to as diners.
Stephen: The business world mindset is: if you aren’t scaling, you aren’t successful. A business does needs to be sustainable but, for us, knowing that we’ve made the city richer is what really matters. And striking that balance requires constant refinement.
Miki: I think that’s where restaurants are the most wild and magical businesses because every decision you make can happen from so many different directions. The decision that is right for our business model looks very different from the decision that is right for the business model of a restaurant down the street. There isn’t a single path. Neither of us would be in this industry if that’s the way it was.
So, the ongoing process of ‘refinement’ and decision making for four businesses – all with unique business models – must mean the two of you have good communication, right?
Stephen: Maybe? I mean, you’d think so, but over the last year – particularly because we’ve been working with our new partners – we have learned that we both do things first and then ask questions later. We’re both more comfortable with that.
Miki: We are more alike than we thought we were.
What else have you learned about your partnership through working with others?
Miki: In the beginning, it was that we were coming from such different places. Because we had to meet in the middle, to make decisions, where we would meet was a magical place because was quite hard to get there. We held that tension in our working relationship for so long… Eventually – I’m not sure when, but eventually – we started to be able to anticipate where we would each come from, which started to cut the timeline of our arguments down.
Stephen: That’s true; in the beginning, our arguments lasted days. Now it’s more like minutes.
Miki: We are business partners, but at the end of the day, we also have to be buddies.
Have you taken anything from your working relationship and applied it into your personal lives?
Stephen: I think it’s important to note that our personal partners are very ‘similar’, in that they are both very patient people.
Miki: That’s true: they are very reasonable, very level-headed.
Stephen: So it’s hard to say ‘we’ have learned anything to incorporate into our personal lives, because our partners actually just allow us to be what we are.
What has been the hardest thing about being in business this year?
Stephen: Building two brands, two physical sites at one time (three when you add Mucker) – that was hard. People would say, “Congratulations on your new project!” and we’d have no idea which one they were talking about.
What has been the biggest win?
Stephen: One thing I definitely didn’t know in the beginning – but I know really clearly now- is that I am motivated by the success of my peers. I really value seeing the people around me thrive. I almost want to see their success more than mine. I get more excited and more driven when I see them succeed. Being able to see that happen is the biggest win of this year.
You’ve covered a lot of ground since opening doors at Dachi four years ago. As you head into your fifth year in business, how does your view of where you are compare to where you thought you’d be when you started this adventure?
Stephen: When we were coming up with the plan of Dachi, we had ideas about where we wanted to go…what we wanted our restaurant to be. There wasn’t, and never has been, a grand idea of a big money-making chain. We were always really focused on service. We wanted to build a place that reflected that. Four years in, we’re really proud to say that we think Dachi captures what we appreciated in those little neighbourhood joints that we admired in those early days in Toronto: an ‘of the place’ restaurant serving honest food and good wine that is welcoming to the community.