Presenting: Michelle Gebhart – a true Renaissance Woman: From Army Brat to Expert Renovator, Biker Lady, Successful Restaurateur & Dedicated Youth Volunteer
My Celebrate Toronto article series is starting with the Beach, one of Toronto’s coolest neighbourhoods. Not only does the Beach offer a resort like feel and sports opportunities akin to Southern California ocean front communities, it is also a great entertainment area with a wide variety of restaurant choices.
I had heard some interesting things about a fairly new restaurant called “Michelle’s Beach House” and decided it was time to check it out in person and meet the owner behind this establishment. Last Wednesday, after doing some shopping in the local Book City in the Beach I sat down at one of the tables by the window and watched people walking back and forth along Queen Street East.
After settling in I had a chance to take some photos of the restaurant and was particularly enchanted by the suspended fish tanks that are home to a diverse range of brightly coloured tropical fish. One of the fish tanks on the north side apparently contains a species of man-eating fish. Fortunately they are well encased in thick glass.
Suspended fish tanks at Michelle’s Beach House
The light-coloured birch and teak décor is very avant-guarde, and the two round elevated tables in front of the bay windows provide a perfect view of the busy street. Walls are decorated with black and white photos and the granite bar provides a solid anchor in this stylish establishment. Interesting architectural touches are added by the washrooms, an area that is usually not paid enough attention to by restaurant owners: I have to admit Michelle’s Beach House has some of the most attractive restroom facilities in town, with cutting edge glass bowl vanities and beautiful pictures inside the private stalls. The hallways are adorned with interesting oversize art. And interestingly enough, the men’s and women’s washrooms don’t have any permanent signs attached. No, the women’s restroom is indicated with a bikini, while a pair of swim trunks signals the men’s facilities. Now someone definitely had a sense of humour here.
The bikini signals the girls’ room
I had arrived a little early and just a couple of minutes after 7 pm Michelle Gebhart, the owner of “Michelle’s in the Beach”, incidentally also the owner of “Michelle’s Brasserie” in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville Neighbourhood, arrived. A tall, young and very attractice-looking woman with a definite flair for fashion introduced herself and after taking care of some staff questions, we sat down at my table and I got a chance to get to know this successful hospitality entrepreneur.
Michelle spent her early days growing up as an “army brat” in Timmins and later moved with her family to British Columbia. Her father, an officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, is of German descent while her mother, a retired high school teacher, is from France. She arrived in Toronto as a teenager and says she always had a Cinderella complex, being the middle daughter.
There is no doubt that Michelle is an adventurer: at 16 she hitchhiked across the country and later worked on a horse ranch. An even more interesting item graces her resume: she used to run a trap line. When I inquired what that is she explained that she used to trap wilds cats and beaver for a company that used to sell the pelts to fur makers. Michelle also tried tamer activities such as selling life insurance. At a young age, Michelle got some work experience as a bar tender and soon developed a liking for the hospitality industry.
After high school Michelle took a program in graphic design, but she never worked in that field. But her keen eye for design shows, both in the tasteful, modern design of her restaurant, and her personal taste in fashion. Soon Michelle decided to open her own business, and started a restaurant called “Michelle’s Alibi” in Newmarket, but unfortunately a business partnership with a friend went sour. Michelle says she got “cleaned out” by her business partner and went back to becoming an employee. She worked for a time for the Founders Club at the Skydome and gained valuable experience in the high-end hospitality business.
Michelle was offered a location for her own restaurant in Yorkville five times, but she turned all those offers down. In 2002 she finally made the jump and created La Brasserie in one of Toronto’s most upscale entertainment districts. She was not deterred by setbacks such as her partner bailing out on her, or the SARS epidemic which hit Toronto’s hospitality and tourism industry like a ton of bricks back in 2003.
Michelle’s Beach House
With a lot of determination and hard work Michelle made it through those tough times, and in late 2005 she started to look for another restaurant location. She chose the Beach for her new venture and started to look at different properties. A placed called “Stoney’s Sports Bar” had gone out of business, and when Michelle had a look at the property, she saw a sugar locust tree growing on the backyard patio. The same type of tree is growing at her Yorkville restaurant, so Michelle saw this as a sign and bought the location in November of 2005.
Due to a very busy winter season at her Yorkville Restaurant, Michelle postponed the renovation of her new location to March of 2006 and then rolled up her sleeves and got to work on completely gutting the existing establishment. The centerpiece, the heavy oak booths, the drywall, everything was removed, and Michelle could get started on her own design.
But Michelle did not only take care of the design and the organization of the renovation, she was right in there, working herself on the plumbing, the electrical, she cut the granite for the bar’s countertop, laid the flooring, put up the drywall. Some of the renovation tidbits included ripping out ceilings with dead mice dropping the floor. Despite all these minor details, Michelle and her dad completely restructured the premises and finished the renovation about two months later. Today she has a gorgeous looking restaurant to show for.
A great reno job…
She had a few extra helpers: teenagers from a downtown Toronto drop-in location called the Evergreen Youth Drop-In Centre assisted her with the construction. Michelle regularly volunteers for this organization. Every other Monday she cooks for the kids, donates the food and brings along a few of her employees to make it all happen. The Evergreen Centre has a day-care centre, provides initial housing for teenagers and helps street kids with job search efforts.
I asked Michelle how she connected with the Evergreen Centre, and she said her motorcycle group, “Los Silverados”, regularly donates to this organization. My jaw dropped: I had thought I only had a talented hospitality entrepreneur in front of me; now it dawned on me that I was talking to a woman who is able to do plumbing, electrical and construction work; a woman who rides a motorcycle; and a woman who regularly volunteers at a downtown youth drop-in centre, using her own time and resources…..
If I was wearing a hat I would have taken it off at this point. Being a totally hopeless klutz myself, a woman who can operate power tools (including a motor cycle) and who does community work will always get my attention.
A friendly face behind the bar