From the hell of bankruptcy to the nirvana of smoked meat, Zane Caplansky's success story is a tale equal parts salvation and salivation.
Authenticity: "Caplansky" is not just a manufactured brand name emblematic of an old school deli, but the entrepreneur's original family surname. Authenticity resonates.
Passion: From teaching himself to smoke meat to launching in a pop-up shop format, Caplansky's boundless enthusiasm charged his business with momentum and generated buzz.
Visibility: A self-described "shameless" self-promoter, Caplansky has leveraged everything from food trucks, social media, reality TV and media coverage - with further plans for a national chain of snack bars and a retail line in grocery stores. Shy he's not.
Walking into Caplansky's Delicatessen in downtown Toronto is a step back in time: warm, smoky aromas waft from the carving station, a server balances plates stacked with sky-high smoked meat sandwiches, and signs with corny slogans like "kickin' it old shul" written in retro blue font adorn the walls and counters.
Owner Zane Caplansky can be found holding court at a corner table, chatting up. A bespeckled Semitic-looking man with curly salt-and-pepper hair, he munches on a giant salad piled high with smoked turkey. He's clearly in his element.
"When people refer to me as a chef, it doesn't sit well with me," he insists. Though he did train in George Brown College's prestigious culinary program, the man credited with reviving the traditional deli in Toronto never wrote the exam for his chef accreditation.
Yet Caplansky has done what many elite chefs have failed to do: create an enduring restaurant in a city oversaturated with fly-by-night food fads.
Caplansky has had a long and winding career as an entrepreneur - but not entirely in the food business. He began his working life on Parliament Hill as special assistant to former Prime Minister John Turner. Back then he was Zane Caplan, son of former MP Elinor Caplan. (Politics is the family business - his brother David was Ontario's Minister of Health.) He then took off on a five-year backpacking trip around the world, waiting tables along the way.
I needed to sell 20 sandwiches a day to pay my rent. On the first day we opened, we sold 200
Back in Canada, he developed an English language training program until he lost everything in dot com crash of the early aughts. Left with nothing, he returned to the culinary world and worked his way up from line cook to restaurant manager. But his entrepreneurial spirit endured. "The idea of working for someone else has always been a vehicle for learning the business," he says.
Then one night, the promise of smoked meat changed his life.
Caplansky's origin story is the stuff of Toronto foodie legend. As the story goes, he had a craving for traditional deli and, since good smoked meat was scarce in Toronto, he asked a few of his friends travelling to Montreal to bring him back a sandwich from the famous Schwartz's deli. When they failed to deliver, he decided that he would learn to smoke meat himself.
"It was a moment of clarity," he says.
He ordered a smoker online and taught himself to cure meat in his backyard in the dead of winter. Shortly thereafter, he set up shop in the unused kitchen of an old local tavern. He kept his costs low and his menu small. The model - heralded as sparking Toronto's recent pop-up restaurant craze - was an immediate hit. "I needed to sell 20 sandwiches a day to pay my rent. On the first day we opened, we sold 200."
Banking on his small-scale success, Caplansky opened his restaurant in 2009 in the Kensigton Market area, the heart of Toronto's historic Jewish neighbourhood. He adopted his family's original name, Caplansky, and positioned himself as the face of his old-school Jewish deli brand, transforming a pop-up concept into a Toronto culinary destination.
"Caplansky's delivered a unique product that hadn't existed in downtown Toronto for at least two decades," says David Sax, author of Save the Deli. "Zane cultivated an atmosphere at Caplansky's where the food and the culture that went with it thrived."
Caplansky's reputation as Toronto's modern deli man has made him become something of a media darling, winning him shout-outs in the New York Times and Gourmet magazine, among others. "You have to be a shameless self-promoter," he says, yet he maintains that he never sends out press releases. Instead, he generates buzz by harnessing the power of social media to engage with his customers.
He also makes good use of reality TV, appearing on Eat St., Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and Dragon's Den. He currently appears as one of three judges on The Food Network's Donut Showdown.
Ever on the quest to expand, Caplansky launched a food truck in 2011, which he plans to franchise in cities across the country. Also in the works are plans expand his catering business, launch a national chain of snack bars and roll out a retail line in grocery stores in spring 2014.
His larger-than-life personality has helped turn his small deli concept into a full-fledged business, but it's his love of smoked meat that fuels his passion.
"I didn't start this business asking, 'How do I make money in the deli business', the question was, 'How do I make a great smoked meat sandwich?'" Luckily for deli fanatics, he's still striving to find the answer.