Katya Schmidt and Christine Kent don’t look like typical new restaurant owners. Never mind that the proprietors of Burnt Toast--a large, modern eatery on Main and Second Ave. in Whitehorse--are so young. (Twenty- four and 30 respectively.) The truly remarkable aspect of this pair is their relaxed and rested demeanour. Sitting down after a lunch rush on an early April afternoon, one would never guess the two women were merely four months into their first entrepreneurial venture. Their faces reveal none of the worry, exhaustion, or utter madness associated with opening a restaurant. In fact, they’re downright bubbly, casually explaining how they conceived, built, and opened one of the city’s most popular new dining spots in less than a year.
As head chef Alex Oberg starts prep work for evening service--Burnt Toast turns into a tapas and wine bar in the evening--Schmidt recalls a discussion at 2010’s Dawson City Music Festival,where she and Kent dreamed up the idea for the restaurant.
“Christine and I had worked together as servers for a long time,” Schmidt explains. “We’d been at the same Whitehorse restaurant for years--both of us on and off there since we were 13 years old, actually.
“We were sitting around, waiting for the music to start, just kind of bored, and, of course, we both started talking about how we would run our own restaurant if we were in charge. And then the more we talked, the more we really got excited about the idea.”
While friendship and business are famously a dangerous mix, Kent and Schmidt had enough experience working together that they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“You work with somebody that long and you get to know how they are and how they like things, and we just really felt we could combine our talents and make a restaurant that was something the city really would like,” says Kent. “We wanted to create the kind of place that we would enjoy ourselves.”
From that summer chat, the women started investigating spaces in Whitehorse where they might set up shop. They looked at several spaces out of their price range before finding their current locale, in October 2010, when the Kebabery---a Middle Eastern-style restaurant that hadbeen open less than a year--moved to a new building.
“We didn’t have a lot of money to start with, that’s for sure,” says Schmidt, a born-and-bred Yukoner who returned to Whitehorse after obtaining a business degree in Calgary. “We asked our families for a little help, and, much to our surprise, they said yes, but a lot of it was just financed with our tip money from serving. Really.”
The women were also fortunate to have a
construction connection--Kent’s brother, Dustin, and his company, Kent Construction, helped transform the space, building everything from tables to a new bar.
Under the women’s guidance, the decor went from Middle East to Upper East Side in a matter of months, with the restaurant opening its doors in mid-December 2010.
Burnt Toast’s contemporary, urban feel is a compromise in styles for Kent and Schmidt, one they find to be a healthy balance of their differing aesthetics. Schmidt, whom Kent calls “the glamourous one,” has more high-end design tastes and cares more about visual appeal, whereas Kent admits she’s into a rustic look and cares more about the food than the space.
“I think if it was all Katja it would be too fancy, and if it was all me it wouldn’t be fancy enough,” says Kent, who also grew up in the Yukon.
“We really don’t step on each other in terms of what part of the business we want to run,” says Schmidt. “I’m happy to be the face of the business, and I love doing the books and organizing the back-end stuff.
“When we first started, I had so many spreadsheets,” she continues. “I love spreadsheets....Christine is all about food. That’s where all her money goes, if you want to know--on food magazines.”
“It’s true,” says Kent, laughing. “I’m happy to hide in the back and just make sure the food is coming out of the kitchen the way I want and to my standards.”
To that end, the food on offer at Burnt Toast is really what’s earned the restaurant a loyal customer base in such a short time. Serving breakfast, lunch, and tapas-style dinner, Burnt Toast’s menu is filled with appetizing, modern offerings--fries cooked in truffle oil, pulled pork sandwiches, croque madame, edamame, ribs, and more. Especially welcome in Whitehorse has been their breakfast menu. Originally, the women planned to open only for breakfast--hence the name of the business--and their care and attention to this shines through. From a Full English to potato latkes served with mashed avocado, poached egg, and hot sauce, Burnt Toast’s breakfasts are a cut above diner fare. Best of all, on weekends breakfast extends into brunch--a rare find in Whitehorse.
Schmidt and Kent have bigger dreams both for Burnt Toast and beyond. Their evening service, popular with customers who want to enjoy a casual glass of wine without the thumping noise of a club or bar, will soon include a few main courses as well as tapas, and the pair plan on bringing in the occasional musical performer. They also have dreams of an organic, wholefoods-style grocery that sells specialty ingredients and pre-made meals.
“It’s actually a lot easier to make a business like this happen in the Yukon than anywhere else,” says Schmidt, who insists they haven’t yet had any panicked moments with their new businesses. “Other places, it might be harder, but here anything new is welcomed and supported." Y