07/14/2015 11:58 EDT | Updated 07/14/2016 05:59 EDT

Chefs branch out, branding themselves with storefronts and retail products

TORONTO - Whether it's a couple of shelves lined with jars of tantalizing sauces and preserves or a full-blown store stocked with gourmet goodies and kitchenware, many chefs are getting in on the retail action.

Vittorio Colacitti opened the Good Son restaurant just over a year ago. To complement his eclectic menu featuring bold flavours and seasonal ingredients, the chef has a small pantry at the entrance.

"Essentially I wanted it to seem like a storefront for the restaurant ... and also, my family imports olive oil so that was kind of the driving force for it," said Colacitti, who finished in the top five in the final season of Food Network Canada's culinary contest show "Top Chef Canada."

Colacitti uses the oil — made from olives grown at his father's grove in Italy — in his Toronto restaurant. When available, he sells it for $20 for a half-litre. He also imports and sells premium-grade loose-leaf teas from China, and offers takeout pizza, steak and ribs.

"It's a way of purveying great ingredients and adding to your brand recognition," he says.

"Not everybody wants to come in and sit down and have a meal, but to still have the option to experience great-quality ingredients, I think that that's something special."

Timing was an inadvertent key to the success of Milk Bar, which puts a playful spin on familiar home-style desserts and savoury snacks.

"MasterChef" judge and pastry chef Christina Tosi said she was motivated to open the first location in 2008 as a bakery with a fun environment where customers could pop in to grab a treat.

But that year the economy had taken a hit. People still wanted to eat out, but a fancy meal wasn't always in the budget.

"And you know a $2 cookie or $5 slice of pie is a great way to do that. You can bring your friends. You don't have to worry about reserving a table. You come to this really fun event that's really financially accessible and affordable and fun," Tosi said from New York.

Milk Bar now has six locations in New York and one in Toronto, with another slated to open in Washington, D.C.

"I think that dessert was also just starting to get its own voice and have its own relevancy outside the context of a meal. And I think I was really fortunate with that."

Chef and restaurateur Mark McEwan, head judge on "Top Chef Canada," opened the 20,000-square-foot upscale food store McEwan in the outdoor Toronto mall Shops at Don Mills in 2009. A second one is set to open in the downtown Toronto-Dominion Centre.

"I've always loved food retail, loved food service. We'd go on vacation and I'd be in and out of food stores, just always enjoyed the category," McEwan said in an interview at the recent Terroir Symposium for the hospitality industry.

"I always thought it would be a very nice fit and a natural fit for a chef to own a retail store. It was challenging, one of the hardest things I've ever done ... I didn't just do a little store — I did a big store."

Other chefs, like Matt Dean Pettit of Rock Lobster restaurant, with three locations in Toronto, have joined forces with large retailers. Sobeys sells his Matty's Seafood brand, with products like lobster chowder, lobster and shrimp bisque and frozen lobster mac and cheese.

Chef Ted Reader has been in the retail sector since he began working at Loblaw for President's Choice marketing expert Dave Nichol in the early 1990s.

The grilling guru has a line of barbecue sauces and seasoning rubs which he's planning to relaunch next year with new flavours and packaging.

"You've got to strike when the fire's hot. I've had product out for a number of years and I've got a good reputation," Reader said.

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