– Story by Joe Leary Photography by Lia Crowe
According to the old William Edward Hickson proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But you could also add in: don’t be afraid to alter course along the way if need be. Daniel Frankel is a testament to this.
As founder and CEO of the Tap & Barrel Group, the ever-engaging and extremely likeable restaurateur has certainly experienced the ups and downs of business during his varied work life. And with a family history within the restaurant industry, one might assume it was anticipated that Daniel would follow down that same path.
“No, never at all,” he says, emphatically. “We came here from Israel in 1979 and at that time the urban planning landscape was changing. My dad—a New York boy—was a serial entrepreneur with several quick-service restaurants under his belt in Israel. My uncle in Vancouver called and told him about a project he was working on called Bridges on Granville Island. The area was changing from all industrial to a hospitality hub with shopping, artists, artisans and restaurants. It was a struggle in Israel and my dad was encouraged to come to Vancouver.”
Suddenly, an idea was in motion but not necessarily in the young Frankel’s mind at the time.
Once in Vancouver and following an early venture operating an ice cream cart, Daniel pursued film studies at Western University.
“I wanted to get into storytelling,” he says. “I really enjoyed the medium of film as you have sight, sound and a great reach, as well as the ability to tell stories. At Western, a few buddies and I made some short films for a closed-circuit campus network before moving to California where I did some editing and PA work.”
Moving back to Vancouver, he eventually met Larry Sugar, his soon-to-be business partner and mentor.
“Larry became my partner in a few ventures and my goal then was to produce episodic television; looking to do whatever the heck I could get paid for and what I could get off the ground.”
It was a veritable mélange of vision and he worked on a naked cooking show called Barely Cooking, a music show for then VTV (now CTV 9) and a few corporate reels.
“Then Larry and I started a format called Pitch-Off before Dragon’s Den became a thing. We launched it as a feature event of the Vancouver Film Festival. The goal was to turn that into an entity on its own but it was very tough.”
Eventually, Daniel was shown an ad in the Westender Newspaper; it was a request for proposals for a coffee shop at the Coal Harbour Community Centre. At that point, he recalls, he’d gone a few years making very little income in the Vancouver film and television business. He submitted a 12-page proposal and won the public tender.
In life, timing is everything—both good and bad—and in this case, it was the latter.
“This was my first attempt in the hospitality industry, selling coffee, ice cream and sandwiches,” he says. “My girlfriend and I made it all ourselves, waking up at 5 am and opening the doors at 6:30; doing our own accounting and driving to Costco for supplies. Then we woke up and saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Suddenly nobody was going out and everybody was in shock. Our business was absolutely dead for months after that.”
After a lengthy struggle, Daniel saw another public tender, this time for Harbour Green Park, that would eventually become The Mill restaurant. By then doubts about his restaurant future had set in.
“I was tired of mediocrity and I realized that I wanted to do something of value,” he says. “You’re only here for a short time and you want to have something of impact and live a life worth living. That’s what it came down to. I wasn’t happy with my output.”
Future hospitality ventures came and went, but eventually it became apparent that a restaurant group was starting to take shape.
Today, Frankel’s empire boasts an impressive portfolio of establishments encompassing six locations, including three Tap & Barrel venues, Tap Shack, Bridges on Granville Island and Brewhall, with more plans in play.
“It was a 10-year education for me and your failures are the tuition you pay for that education,” he says. “In 2001, we opened up in Coal Harbour and 2011 was the RFP for Olympic Village. Over those 10 years, I failed and I succeeded, and it was an extraordinary lesson.”
By 2011, he realized he needed to pivot.
“Every once in a while you hit a fork in the road and you have an opportunity to draw up the blueprints of your life. In 2011, I put in the application for Tap & Barrel. It was then called The Village Kitchen as I just made up some name to submit as a placeholder. Everybody was telling me I was crazy because the City of Vancouver had gone bankrupt on Olympic Village and the area was an absolute ghost town.”
But the rest is history.
Embracing the community, the Tap & Barrel Group takes great pride in serving local craft product from beer to wine and spirits.
“We support local farms, local artisans and local artists, and our mandate is to create something sustainable that we can take pride in. I hear the root word ‘organism’ in organization. It has to be sustainable. I’ll consider myself successful when I’m rendered obsolete. I’m really just a curator. My team is way smarter than I am. I can see the vision and my role is to empower them.”
That said, a worldwide pandemic certainly threw the entire industry a curveball. “Prior to COVID-19, we were on an incredible run,” Daniel says. “Two years ago I purchased Bridges and we opened Brewhall—we were on a great roll. We had three new deals, two of which we announced at our annual leadership summit in March right before the pandemic. A week later we hit a wall. Our sales went down 35 to 40 per cent, and at the time I thought it couldn’t get any worse than this. I had a friend who said that in China revenue was down 90 per cent. It was dismal but at least we had some heads up and could do some business projections. A month later we were down 50 per cent and already seating every other table. Literally, on March 15, we made the call to shut down that night at 10 pm—a week prior to the provincial health order mandating restaurants to close.”
The pandemic also took a toll on the team in which he takes such incredible pride. “In 2019 we were pushing close to 1,400 staff on payroll, company-wide in the peak season. We were at about 700 this summer…this winter, we are down to about 350 staff.
Unfazed and undaunted, Daniel ponders the day when “normal” resumes and he repeats his daily mantra as a reminder: “I am to be of service to everyone in my sphere of influence every day.”
Despite all the hurt COVID-19 threw his company’s way, he remains focused and fixated on better days ahead.
“Stars shine brightest in the darkest moments,” he adds. “We will emerge from this stronger, wiser and better versions of ourselves.”