This is Marisa Tran: The co-owner of Toronto’s Hollandaise Diner talks queer identity, career shifts, community giving and exploring the world

Marisa Tran and Josh de Grosbois opened Hollandaise Diner in Toronto’s east-end on December 9, 2015. They serve bottomless coffee, pancake creations, extensive poutine options and classic breakfasts, while also giving guests the opportunity to build their own eggs benedict.

We connect with Marisa about her experience as a queer, intersectional woman who co-owns a Toronto restaurant, how she manages life in the food industry with her passion for travel and background in human resources and the impact Hollandaise Diner has on the Danforth East community.

Read our full interview with this humble, open, transparent and empowering woman leader now.

Marisa Tran exploring Iceland. Photo courtesy of: Marisa Tran.
  1. Why did Hollandaise Diner’s simple, yet customizable, vibe appeal to you?

So many factors went into our menu, it’s hard to know where to start! First, I really wanted inclusivity to be at the forefront of our business. This goes from identity to accessibility to dietary restrictions, and, of course, everything inside and outside of those parametres. With the size of our tiny kitchen, we can only do so many substitutions or adjustments, so instead of guests asking to make substitutions and us having to say we could not accommodate them, we added everything to the menu so they can build their breakfast the way they want.

  1. The diner is located in the Danforth East neighbourhood. What about this community is significant to you and fellow co-owner, Josh?

Our Danforth East community is not just where we work. Josh grew up in this neighbourhood and I’ve lived here for 11 years. This is our home as much as it is our place of business. This neighbourhood legitimately cares about it’s neighbours and businesses and we love being a part of that in so many ways.

  1. What do you oversee at Hollandaise? What does Josh oversee?

Those lines are definitely blurred, but to put it simply…

I oversee the customer experience including anything that has to do with our front of house (decor, staff, etc), all social media and marketing, community events and off-site business. I also run most of our weekly errands (grocery shopping, bread pick up, etc), all vendor management, technology and our financials.

Josh oversees the menu design, weekly specials, large vendor orders, all kitchen staff, quality control, equipment maintenance and day-to-day business operations.

  1. How did you and Josh meet? What’s your favourite part about working with him?

Josh and I actually met in our teens. We went to different schools but I joined a band he played in and we continued playing music together for nearly 10 years. Josh and I started dating in 2005 and we’ve been journeying through life together ever since! Josh and I have completely opposite skills, so working together is actually surprisingly balanced, although we drive each other nuts sometimes, haha!

I love working with him because he truly believes in our business, he has so much passion and genuinely cares about our entire team, customers and the food we serve.

  1. On your website, it says that you work closely with the east-end community. What does this involve and why is it part of the Hollandaise mandate?

We do our best to support local businesses and that has always been the goal for Hollandaise. We opened in our neighbourhood because we wanted to contribute and it only makes sense to support local businesses with the same motive.

Thankfully, our neighbourhood has outstanding businesses with high quality products that are made with love and passion. Celena’s Bakery makes all of our breads; they are preservative free and probably have the best sourdough in Toronto. We get our ethical and sustainable smoked salmon from The Smoke Bloke, another east-end, family-run business. We also get many of our food from local grocers and have chosen Pacific Bottle Works as our cold beverage distributor; they are Canadian and health-centred.

  1. There’s also a section on your website that touches on the expectations you have for your employees to provide an inclusive and safe environment for all. As co-owner, what do you do to reinforce this and educate your colleagues about inclusion and diversity?

As a queer, intersectional woman, I know the importance of an inclusive and safe space. The statement on our website is there both for staff and guests eating at the diner to follow. We expect our team will foster a safe and inclusive environment and our team is trained to ensure no guests will jeopardize that.

Unfortunately, we have had a handful of guests we have asked to not return, but there is a statement in our front window and anyone coming in is expected to contribute to a positive, safe and inclusive space…ALWAYS.

Many members of our team identify with marginalized groups and I do believe as an employer, it’s our responsibility to ensure their safety at work and that we provide equitable opportunities for growth and support.

  1. How has the Hollandaise Diner brand shifted and developed since day one?

To be honest, I am not sure we really have shifted at all. When it comes to our social media, I think we are more comfortable using our voice and less concerned with building a following, but that’s about it.

  1. Was owning a restaurant something you always wanted to do? What lead you to this place?

I never thought I would own a restaurant! Before Hollandaise, my career included non-profits and HR management, so this was a whole new direction for me! Josh was in the industry for years before we opened and it was our friend and founding-partner, David, who suggested we open a brunch restaurant. David and I went for brunch every weekend together and we are both very proud east-enders. Josh, David and I wanted to bring brunch closer to home and we started to make moves towards opening our own brunch spot in 2013, two years before opening.

  1. What is the most challenging aspect of owning and operating a restaurant?

That’s such a hard question to answer…

I think the overall exhaustion can be really difficult. I still pick up projects outside of Hollandaise and often am balancing a combined 70+ hour work week. Besides that, facing sexism in the industry has been difficult. A number of food reps, salespeople and some past customers overlook me as an owner or decision-maker and prefer to speak Josh and Matt, the Front of House Manager. Thankfully Josh and Matt handle those situations perfectly and let their feminism show.

Lastly, a very difficult part are those times Josh and I disagree. If you think putting IKEA furniture together with your partner is hard, try arguing restaurant logistics, financial cutbacks and staffing with your partner!

  1. What’s the competition like for brunch on Danforth East? How do you ensure Hollandaise stands out?

There are not too many restaurants dedicated to brunch in our neighbourhood, thankfully. A number of other restaurants are now offering brunch and there are a couple other spots [popping up] that are just brunch across Danforth.

We aren’t too concerned with competition or standing out; our goal has always been to provide a good quality brunch with an affordable price to our neighbours and we are confident we are doing just that.

We do make sure we are staying true to our voice and character, though. Our chalkboards often have a fun quote and our weekend specials almost always have a punny name: We crack jokes as much as we crack yolks (sorry, I had to) and I do know our customers enjoy that!

  1. The space you’re in has 24 seats. Hollandaise is small, cozy and bumping. How do you manage the flow of customers in your dining room?

So very true. We are small and cozy, for sure!!! It is tough, especially on a weekend, to manage the small and packed space. When we have a line up, the serving team has to be strategic and calculated to make sure all orders are placed within minutes of customers sitting while ensuring ordering does not overflow the kitchen. We truly have an amazing team that has perfected their timing and rhythm. Customers can expect their meals to be served between eight to 12 minutes after ordering, which means our lineups move quickly.

  1. What’s your busiest day of the week?

Without a doubt, Sundays are the busiest day of the week.

  1. How many people are on staff? With Hollandaise expected to continue to grow, how do you plan to support and expand your team?

Including myself and Josh, we have five people on our scheduled team and a couple people on call or on leave.

We definitely have eyes to continue growing our business but it is too soon to look at expanding our team. The team we have right now is full of experienced professionals, many who have eyes to start their own restaurant in the next couple of years.

The best way we can support them is to give them transparency and decision-making abilities. Our entire team is aware of our financials, long and short term goals and, as a team, we celebrate wins and discuss how we can improve.

Beyond giving those opportunities, we also do our best to provide in other ways. For example, effective October 2018, we are giving all full-time staff and their partners/family medical coverage. We also have a free-food policy, which gives everyone permission to stock their home fridge with groceries from Hollandaise, so long as they are honest and also ask before taking prepared food.

  1. Hollandaise has a presence on Facebook and Instagram. Why did you choose these two platforms to share the diner’s story?

Facebook and Instagram give followers (or potential followers) the opportunity to engage with us in whatever way they like. If they are visual, they can look at our pics, if there are questions about our menu, they can message us or read reviews. We also like Facebook because we can share community events, our specials, articles that resonate with us or our values; it’s a great place to information-share.

Instagram is great because we can share the daily highlights through our story, (you will often find a good chalkboard joke here, hehe), and share photos of our dishes and also our team. It’s important to us that customers know we are a small team of young entrepreneurs and Hollandaise is not an investment from a wealthy, disconnected restaurateur.

  1. How has social media impacted the diner’s development? How has it helped you further connect with the Danforth East community?

When people heard about Hollandaise before we even took the newspaper off our window, we had about 700 Facebook likes! Josh and I say this often, social media got people coming in and checking us out, and our food keeps them coming back.

Our neighbourhood was so excited to see a brunch spot open up that people were coming in to lend a hand with the reno, they were emailing us to make sure we added a kids menu, they were inviting us to events (even their pool parties!) and so much more. At such a stressful, exciting, exhausting and terrifying time in our lives, this was the support we needed and it would not have been possible without social media spreading the word and connecting us with customers so easily.

  1. In addition to owning Hollandaise, you’re an avid traveller! Describe your most recent trip for us, if you can, in a few sentences.

I am! I reached my 30 by 30 (#Marisas30x30) and I just got back from Iceland.

Iceland was amazing and so easy to travel and explore, from icebergs to volcanos, it has everything! I also went to Chile in March 2018 to celebrate my 30th birthday. Both trips were road-trip-style and heavily focused on being outside. I love to explore nature and get absorbed into a country. Most importantly, I definitely love to eat new dishes and send pictures of inspiration back to the Hollandaise team!

  1. Would you go back to any of these places? Why or why not?

Definitely! My family came from Vietnam and I feel I can keep revisiting and learning every time, so I would love to go to Vietnam for a third time. My last trip to Iceland was my second visit and I still have Northern Iceland to explore. I desperately want to go back to Malaysia and Laos, two countries that unexpectedly stole my heart.

In Laos, the nature and the kind-heartedness of everyone really warmed me; I hope I can go back again and have the same experience. I landed in Malaysia by accident in 2017 and I have never been so thankful for a traveling error. I will never forget being on a long bus ride to Penang, Malaysia and being the only tourist on the bus. The bus driver checked on me regularly, the people beside me led me by hand to show me to the bathroom at the pitstop and, instead of giving me directions, the bus driver’s wife walked me a couple blocks to the ferry so I was safe and didn’t get lost in the middle of the night.

It is experiences like this that warm my heart, show me the good in the world and empower me to be contagiously generous and optimistic.

  1. What are some key tips you’ve learned over the years that help you manage your business and your passions?

I think there are two major things I’ve learned over the years. First, transparency. I am an honest and upfront person and if you ask me anything you will always get an honest, transparent answer. Being transparent shows respects and honesty, which are two major elements of any professional or personal relationship.

Second, I have a responsibility to share my story and motivate or support others like me to do the same. I keep this at the front of my mind regularly and it helps me stay motivated and push through hardships, knowing my story can motivate others.

  1. What’s next for you and the Hollandaise team?

Short term, we are excited for staff benefits and we are working on our new, adjusted menu, which will launch in January 2019.

Longer term, Josh and I have a goal to travel together in 2020, so we will continue to build our business in hopes of having a break together in a couple of years.

Josh, Matt, Dwayne (Assistant Kitchen Manager) and I have all discussed and met with our realtor about a second location or a potential move, if another space opens up on our block (there is no way are we leaving our block!), but there is a lot of unknown there still.

  1. Where can our readers go to learn more about the Hollandaise menu and experience?

Our menu is up on HollandaiseDiner.com but truly, the best way to check out the menu is to come in! If you have questions about dietary restrictions, every person on our team can walk you through our menu and make sure your meal will be delicious and safe for you.

If you want to do your research ahead of time, check out our Instagram (@hollandaisediner).

Marisa Tran exploring Iceland. Photo courtesy of: Marisa Tran.

We also asked Marisa what advice she would share with other world travellers and/or restaurant owners. She says:

“Believe in yourself and stay true to your ethics. Always make an effort to bring people up, give the benefit of the doubt and go out of your way to never bring someone down. Keep these values for yourself as well, surround yourself with people that empower you, motivate you and raise you up. Follow your dreams and if you don’t know where to start, connect with great role models who can give you some guidance.”

A huge thank you to Marisa for sharing her story with A Quarter Young. We wish you and the Hollandaise Diner team all the best and will keep following #Marisas30x30 to see where you adventure to next.

The feature photo is by Erik Wilhelm

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