Peter Oliver, not too publicly known for private reasons passed away at the age of 74 on September 21, 2022.
Peter Charles Howard Oliver was born July 30, 1948, in Cape Town, South Africa, to Guy Oliver, a soldier who had suffered a debilitating injury during the Second World War, and Joan Parsonson, a Canadian.
Peter Oliver always met all of his employees at least once during their employment.
As an employee, I had to meet with Peter Oliver. That was back in 1995. It was a good meeting and included communication in human relations and resources. He was truly a gentleman.
“For someone that has his or her own engine, it should not be farmed out” he used to say in conversation. I remember also him talking about expansion and the acquisition of talent which was not readily available back then.
I will miss Peter Oliver.
Peter attended boarding school in South Africa at an early age. In 1967 almost 10 years after his father died, Peter arrived in Canada to attend McGill University.
He was under the impression that, because his mother was Canadian, tuition would be free. Upon realizing the mistake, Peter took on a series of odd jobs to help pay for his education.
He even worked as a lumberjack.
By the late 1970s, Peter had built a successful career in commercial real estate, and as a stockbroker.
He decided his mother and stepfather should come to Canada and that together they would start a bakery. Peter would build it.
It was called Oliver’s Old Fashioned Bakery (which is now closed) and was the start of a food service empire.
In 1993, Michael Bonacini, then the chef at the venerated Italian restaurant Centro (now also closed), received a call from a headhunter.
The recruiter was working with a mystery restaurateur who was searching for a chef and partner for a new project in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.
Michael agreed to the meeting and there, waiting for him was six-foot-four, big, toothy smile, long and lanky Peter Oliver.
By then, Peter Oliver was already a fixture of Toronto’s restaurant scene. He had a handful of successful midtown businesses to his name including a Toronto landmark Auberge du Pommier.
Oliver told Bonacini that he was trying to build an upmarket but casual spot called Jump, which would cater to the expense-account-wielding Bay Street crowd.
This caught Bonacini’s attention.
It sounded like Union Square Cafe in New York, a place that Bonacini was familiar with.
They struck a deal. And thus another restaurant empire was born.
Over three decades, the pair built one of the country’s most powerful hospitality companies, including 34 restaurants and venues under the Oliver and Bonacini brand.
Mr. Oliver’s elder son, Andrew Oliver, said. “There were years where there was no funding, and my mom [who worked as an Air Canada flight attendant] had to support everyone.”
And when it came time to build Jump, Bonacini said, they spent $150,000 over budget just to get the doors open – and both had to put their homes up as security for the loan.
“We pretty much hawked all that we could hawk.”
Luckily, Jump was a success, and within weeks, they were run off their feet. Both Mr. Bonacini and Mr. Oliver had to ask their wives to work coat checks because they couldn’t hire and train staff fast enough to keep up.
At the restaurants, Peter Oliver’s attention to detail was legendary. It was usual to find him scrubbing down the kitchen.
Michael with his stints as a judge on MasterChef Canada, would emerge as the more public face of the company, and it was Mr. Oliver who would personally train each and every new employee, sitting down for dinner with them at the end of the five-hour training session.
Each and every day, without fail, he would shine his brogues before work.
“He believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right.” In the kitchen, he’d say ‘make it nice, or make it twice.’
It was only a decade or so ago, after his son Andrew took over as president and CEO of the company, that Peter Oliver eased up on his time at the restaurants.
He devoted more of his time to charity – including the Leacock Foundation, a charity he founded to support marginalized youth groups in Toronto and South Africa. He also worked closely with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (his daughter Vanessa has Type 1 diabetes). He started the JDRF Ride to Defeat Diabetes in 1986, which has since raised over $ 70 million.
He also finally allowed himself some time to relax. He’d tell his friends, with a puckish grin, that he was going to “meet with Mr. Green” – his code for golf, and enjoyed annual golfing trips to Arizona with his sons.
And as often as possible, he spent time at his cottage on Baptiste Lake near Bancroft. But for Peter, even a place of leisure needed purpose. He threw himself into landscaping and did most of the manual labor himself.
After Mr. Oliver was diagnosed with lung cancer in May of 2021, he still made regular trips to the cottage to spend time with his family. He taught his grandchildren how to grow vegetables. He would host large family dinners with the food they had grown, telling everyone that “nobody on Lake Baptiste is eating better than us.”
And afterward, with a gin and tonic – garnished with a sprig of fresh mint – in hand, he would take a moment to enjoy himself. “This,” he’d say, “is living.”
Mr. Oliver leaves his wife, Maureen; his children, Vanessa, Jessica, Andrew, and Marc; and nine grandchildren.
May you rest in peace, Mr. Oliver.