Hamilton, CAN: Gorilla Cheese is taking a grilling

John Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator
The future location of Gorilla Cheese on Ottawa Street.

By Meredith Mac Leod  |  The Spectator – Hamilton

John Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator  Graeme Smith inside his incomplete Gorilla Cheese restaurant on Ottawa Street North.
John Rennison,The Hamilton SpectatorGraeme Smith inside his incomplete Gorilla Cheese restaurant on Ottawa Street North.

Gorilla Cheese food truck owner Graeme Smith understands some people don’t see why he’s seeking crowdfunding for a permanent location.

After all, the truck draws lineups at festivals, has been featured on the Food Network’s “Eat Street” and Smith even landed an onscreen investment deal on CBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”

“People see us at a festival in July and I hear them say that we must be making money hand over fist. But they don’t see all the months we can’t be out serving.”

Added to that have been a series of financial setbacks and that the “Dragon’s Den” deal wasn’t finalized. In fact, Dragon and restaurateur Vickram Vij couldn’t convince his backers that the food truck model was viable.

Smith says without the support of Gorilla Cheese fans, he doesn’t have the cash to finish his restaurant, which is now about four months behind its scheduled opening.

“I’m not looking for a handout,” he said. “I will give back the same value people have invested.”

Storefront  John Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator The future location of Gorilla Cheese on Ottawa Street.
StorefrontJohn Rennison,The Hamilton Spectator

The future location of Gorilla Cheese on Ottawa Street.

As of Friday afternoon, the Indiegogo campaign has four days left and had achieved 19 per cent of its $32,500 target.

Smith admits he’s getting worried. It’s not his first choice as a means to raise money, but getting bank financing isn’t an option.

He’s offering perks for contributions over $25. For instance, a $150 contribution brings a $100 gift card, a Gorilla Cheese T-shirt and your name etched on the wall at the restaurant. For $500, a backer gets either a $500 gift card or a catered party for up to 10 people.

A $2,000 contribution gets food for a year for two or a catered party for 200, while $5,000 brings Gorilla Cheese for life for two or a private catered party for 50 every month for a year.

“I’m telling people to crowdfund their crowdfund. A bunch of friends can pitch in together to get a private party. I’ve dropped the rates on my normal catering fees.”

Smith aimed to have his new location, 131 Ottawa St. N. at the corner of Roxborough, grilling sandwiches by the end of January.

He signed a three-year lease on the former site of Poco Loco in October and has an option to buy the building after a year.

Smith figured he would just add some kitchen equipment, paint the restaurant in his black, grey and red colours, lay down new flooring and open for business.

He knew the space was officially designated as a hair salon, but felt reassured by emails between the building’s owner and city staff that changing the use would be a relatively minor process.

Instead, it required thousands of dollars in architectural and engineering drawings, a new air intake system venting through the roof, a grease handling system and all new emergency lighting. His restaurant must be built as if the space has never housed a restaurant before, he says.

“This place existed for nine years as a restaurant. It was inspected, its licence was renewed and it even had a change of ownership. It feels almost like I’m building a restaurant from the ground up.”

A city spokesperson said licensing requirements changed a few years ago so that all inspections, including zoning, fire, health, parking and building reviews, must be complete before a licence is issued. Mike Kirkopoulous said Gorilla Cheese could have opened immediately as a takeout location only, but the application called for 14 seats. That required a building permit.

“Having said that though, what we are hopeful we can do is meet with the owners and address this issue and find a solution.”

But Smith says the delay means he’s run out of money. He’s had to pay about $16,000 in rent, utilities, insurance and payments on new kitchen equipment without a dime in revenue coming in. He tried to get the truck out in the winter to serve, but that ended up costing him in frozen water and propane lines, pumps and a water heater.

Early bumps in the road, including a massive engine repair, the dissolution of a former partnership and a failed generator that took the truck off the road for three weeks in the summer last year, have already taken a toll on his savings, Smith said.

The profit margins are already slim without such problems, he says. About one-third of his revenue is spent on food, another third on labour and taxes take up about 14 per cent. Entry fees to festivals range from $1,500 to $3,000. Out of what remains, he’s got to pay for storage fees for his truck, propane and gas, insurance and repairs.

“I can tell you there’s not much left.”

But having a permanent location makes the truck viable. It will be open year-round for one thing, but also allows an expanded menu, cuts labour costs in food preparation and saves on food costs. He figures a new slicer will save him about $350 a week in cheese costs alone.

A restaurant will also give Gorilla Cheese a higher profile, he says.

“Right now we’re limited to word of mouth and social media. Having a place open standard restaurant hours will mean people will always know where to find us.”

Smith, a former steelworker, dreamed of a grilled cheese business for years. He says he’s determined, despite the hurdles.

“I’ve questioned giving up lots of times, but this is where my heart is. I’ve invested so much, financially and with my own heart. I can never give it up.”