On April 9th, 2014, three cheesy and terrified gorillas entered CBC Studios in Toronto to go head-to-head with Canada’s most famous investors on famed television show Dragons’ Den. We’ve been bound by strict contract to keep the outcome secret since, and it’s been difficult. Every single day since our pitch, we’ve been asked about it and had to put on our best poker faces. Needless to say, this blog post has been a long time coming, and we’re more than elated to reveal all the things that is making October 2014 a landmark month in the history of Gorilla Cheese. Read on!
(Side note: At the time of this writing, we still have not seen the episode, so what you’re reading is solely based on our experience. I can only hope that the Dragons’ Den producers and editors didn’t make us look completely like the monkeys we are.)
To begin, the decision to audition to pitch on Dragons’ Den back in March was wholly a spontaneous thing. As a fan of the show, I had always fantasized about being on it, but never thought in my wildest dreams that it could become a reality. When I read that Innovation Factory was holding a seminar on how to pitch for some upcoming auditions later that week, that’s how I found out about it. My hopes weren’t necessarily high, but I thought I’d check it out. When I went to the audition, I had nothing prepared, and really expected nothing in return. I thought I’d go in and just tell them what we’re about and see what they said. While waiting for my turn to audition, one of my fellow hopeful contestants suggested that I really should have our product to show the producers. I took the suggestion and raced out to get Gord, and we came back and parked in front of CBC Hamilton on James St, just in time for my audition time. Thankfully, the producers were hungry, so my plying them with grilled cheese seemed to do the trick! A week later, I got a call that we had been accepted.
During that phone call, the producers informed us that they wanted to have Gord (our truck, and also the name of the gorilla in our logo) on the set, however, we could not bring in any propane tanks or equipment due to safety concerns. We wanted to make sandwiches for the Dragons, so we had to figure out another way. So, the day before the big pitch, we took Gord to Avondale Restaurant Equipment to have our propane grill removed (it weighs like 10 million pounds) and replaced with an electric substitute. I got a call that afternoon, telling me that the electric grill required far more amps than Gord’s electrical box could supply, and that to make it work, we’d have to run all new wiring and install a new box. Jeepers, we just had to make 5 sandwiches! We nixed the idea and I got some Hamilton Beach electric skillets to cook the sandwiches. However, the grill was removed and there was no time to re-install it before the show, so there was a gaping hole where it usually sat. Gotta say, the truck didn’t look particularly pretty on the inside, and I prayed that none of the Dragons would want to board the truck. Of course, Vikram Vij did. Ugh.
It took a while to get Gord up the elevator and into the studio, as the battery had to be disconnected and the gasoline drained, and it took ten people to push the truck into place. But that was only the beginning of the madness. I hadn’t had the chance to nail down my pitch, as we were getting quite busy with the upcoming food truck season and the acquisition of a future storefront just days before, but more on that in a few paragraphs. I asked them when the shoot was scheduled, begging for some time to review my notes so I could come up with a somewhat cohesive pitch. I was assured I would have at least a few hours, as we were scheduled for later that afternoon. Of course, that’s just not how television works.
After getting Gord into place, I was informed that the time had been moved ahead to, well, pretty much NOW. Pete and Sacha boarded the truck to get the sandwiches ready, amidst dozens of people on the truck, adjusting the lighting and setting up microphones and the such, while I was whisked away for makeup and to get into place. While I was off, another producer came to tell me that the electric skillets were setting off all the circuit breakers and couldn’t be used. “Don’t worry,” they said, “we have Pete and Sacha in our kitchen making them, come with me.” I didn’t even get my makeup. I went into the kitchen to find my crew gone, having already been taken to their places on the truck. There stood some dude I’ve never met, with a frying pan on low and a slice of cheese between two slices of bread. I don’t even think there was butter on the bread. I was mortified. I wanted to make them Lumberjacks and Sarduccis, not a slice of cheese between two slices of unbuttered bread! “Don’t worry,” they said, “it will make for great television!” TELEVISION? This is my LIFE, man! I’m here to get a deal!! “Don’t worry,” they said.
They took me to the bottom of those infamous stairs that led to the set. I’ve seen those stairs travelled hundreds of times before on the show, and here I was, about to mount them. I was shaking with fear. The rest, I don’t even remember. Only now, at the time that you’re reading this after the show has aired, do I have any idea what I said… other than Arlene Dickinson saying “I gotta be honest, these sandwiches aren’t that great.” And I know I came out like a cornered badger, defending that those were NOT our sandwiches!! I also remember being turned down by Jim Treliving and that I thought it was all going to slide downhill from there. Oh, and something about a spatula being dropped during the pitch.
From that point, I only remember driving Gord home, and screaming “VIKRAAAAM!!!” repeatedly at the top of my lungs while honking the horn in dead traffic on the Gardiner Expressway.
The Great News: We got a deal on Dragons’ Den! We asked for $150,000 for some forgotten percentage of the company, and famous restaurateur Dragon Vikram Vij proposed the same amount as a loan with no equity in the company. It was better than we could have ever hoped. Vikram is an incredible man who started his life in Canada with nothing more than $50 in his pocket and a burning passion to make excellent food. He certainly has done so, and his Indian restaurants in British Columbia are world- famous. He also has a food truck and a line of his own high-quality frozen foods. He is the ideal partner for a company like Gorilla Cheese. And we have also lined up a few things with rock & roll investor Mike Wekerle that has become a much-valued relationship. He’s kind of a hero to me, so that’s also very awesome.
The Not-As-Great-News: We are still in due-diligence phase with our funding. It’s going quite late, and it’s a fact that more than 80% of the deals on Dragons’ Den do not make it past due-diligence. There is a great possibility that we may not get the funding. I have spoken to Vikram since, and he has readied me to expect that it may not come through, as he has his own people to answer to, and they may not necessarily like our past numbers. It doesn’t matter how awesome a company is, or how good their grilled cheese is, or how many followers they have on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned the hard way that investors and accountants look at black-and-white numbers, and we’ve admittedly had hardships in the past. However, it’s not dead by any means, and we continue to work on it. On the other hand, Vikram has said that he will wholly support the business though his social media and will come down to our storefront with a camera crew to support the company when we open. The exposure of being on the show, and especially to have Vikram’s support is priceless, and we are absolutely over-the-moon with the results. What an honour it is to even speak to this man, never mind getting a hug and my name remembered whenever I’ve seen him since. Thank you, Vikram Vij, thank you!
Now this is exciting. Yes, we are moving ahead with the storefront, and it will be open before December. However, things have changed. This time, we start with the Not-As-Great News, but rest assured, it gets better:
The Not-As-Great-News: We will not be opening the location at King St East as originally intended. When we first looked at the location, it looked like a relatively turn-key operation. Put some equipment in place, doll it up with some paint and signage, and voila! However, after having the engineers come in to prepare it for inspection and equipping, it became apparent that this was going to cost way more money than expected. We were getting pretty worried, as the intended date to open had long passed and kept getting pushed back as we dealt with a tough and gruelling food truck season, fraught with problems and all our revenues being eaten. We apologize to the amazing neighbourhood for pulling out, but we’re only a few blocks away, and we’re happy to still be a part of that community, only a few blocks further east.
The Great News: We will be opening our storefront soon in a new location at 131 Ottawa St North, the recently-former location of Poco Loco. We have signed a three-year lease with the intent to purchase the building in one year. It is indeed sad that Hamilton will lose a great eatery in Poco Loco, but we promise to live up to the name Doug Lovelock established here, and will keep the spirit alive with his help, and perhaps with a sandwich dedicated in his honour.
This location is even better than we could have anticipated, with the perfect amount of seating and the ideal venue for a take-out establishment. Not to mention, it is on Ottawa Street, home to the most progressive and successful BIA I have ever encountered. I’ve dealt with many BIA’s, from some awesome ones in Hamilton to some not-as-awesome ones in Toronto and Niagara. I can say that Patti and Elisha are two of the most passionate and wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure to deal with, and I couldn’t ask for a better neighbourhood to set up shop, thanks to their excellence. Patti has talked me down from virtual ledges and continues to be an inspiration and mentor to me. THANK YOU, Patti! Also, my favourite restaurateurs in Hamilton, Matt and Erin from Rapscallion and Two Black Sheep are also opening a location right near us, and I’ve heard word of some other awesome Hamiltonian businesses that are eyeballing the area. EXCITING!!! We’re proud and freakin’ excited to be a part of this new community and ever-evolving street.
The new Ottawa Street location will take Gorilla Cheese to the next level, and is what I intended Gorilla Cheese to be since I first came up with the idea almost 20 years ago. Our menu for both the truck and the take-out will be greatly expanded with the possibilities that a bigger kitchen can provide. I have my sights firmly set on awesome new offerings, including the best breakfast sandwiches in Hamilton, gluten-free options and some excellent new side-dishes. Picture home-made baked beans, macaroni & cheese and some great new soups to go along with that cheese. I want Gorilla Cheese to be a fun place unlike any other, complete with music ranging from Slayer to Lady Gaga and a really fun and friendly atmosphere. I want it to be an experience and a destination that will make it worth it for people to travel to. And my next media-whoring goal? I want Gorilla Cheese to be on You Gotta Eat Here. Hello, Mr. Catucci?
Last, but not least (at least in my world) many or most of you may be aware that my friend of more than 25 years and partner left the business unexpectedly two years ago. It has been a very difficult couple of years, not only for the stresses involved in the break-up and various other tough circumstances over that time, but also in the sadness of losing what I thought was a good friend. It’s with a sense of bitter-sweetness that I can now say that I have just paid out my partner completely, fully and fairly, ahead of schedule and with all conditions met. Gorilla Cheese is now owned 100% by Graeme Smith, and we can now move ahead without the burden of that stress. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my father and step-mother, Jim and Rebecca Smith for their immense help in getting me to this point, as we may not be here without their assistance. THANK YOU.
We will be moving forward with an updated logo, a new website, a new storefront and the excitement that our Dragons’ Den episode has stirred. Our Grilled Cheese Kingdom is almost complete, and after we settle in to that crazy status, we’ll look towards making a Grilled Cheese Empire. Keep in mind, that at this point, all of this is being done without the funding from the Dragons’ Den win. It is YOU, our families, friends, suppliers, supporters and customers that have brought us to this point.
An additional special shout-out of thanks to the following peeps:
My brother, Pete, my workhorse and my best friend who has stood beside me selflessly every step of the way. Your support means everything to me.
My mom, for your love, your support, and for your money, too. Also to my stepfather, Peter Bridges, who we lost to cancer, but who continues to be an inspiration to me to this day. We feel your loss immensely.
My Granny, for being awesome.
To my siblings Rory, Danis and Alex and their families for their unconditional love and support, despite my shortcomings in my duties as a brother.
My crew, who meet and constantly exceed the crazy and often-spontaneous demands of our company and the insane food-truck world.
My suppliers: Scott Jensen of Jensen Cheese – Thank god that the best cheese in the world is made locally! Josie and Nickey of Cake & Loaf Bakery for being Hamilton’s best bakery and supplying us with the best custom bread we could ever ask for; Jim Beattie of MarketFresh Produce, who has constantly met my crazy demands for basil and other stuff at ridiculous hours. All my suppliers have become our friends, and I thank them all for putting up with our crazy food truck demands. Enter a new era of even crazier demands! Looking forward to it.
Sid Friedman, who has done so much for the food truck scene in Southern Ontario, for both his undying support and tireless efforts in the local food industry.
Suresh Doss, who, along with Sid, has gone above and beyond not only to break us into the industry, but also to further the food truck movement and restaurant industry. And he throws some damned good events, too.
To Hamilton’s councillors, who helped pave the way for Hamilton, the best food truck city in Canada, most especially Chad Collins and Jason Farr. Russ Powers, you can bite it.
To Innovation Factory and all the Lions at the Lions Lair competition. You prove that Hamilton is the best city in which to be a business.
To my girl, Andi Nisbet, who is just awesome and makes me really, really happy.
To my buddies Greg Kotsopoulis, Rob Townsend and Jason Din for being my buddies through thick and thin. Yes, I meant that to rhyme.
Last but not least, additional thanks and love to our many customers, followers and supporters, who are indeed the most responsible for our successes. Gorilla Cheese thanks you from the bottoms of our hearts.
GRILLED CHEESE FOR LIFE!!