'Best investment I ever made’: Man behind middle finger sculpture not shy about serving up penne and his thoughts
Kit Kat restaurant owner Al Carbone is steaming under his fedora about the King St. streetcar pilot. But is the entrepreneur with a history of fighting city hall a neighbourhood saviour, or a provocateur who’s finally crossed the line?
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Al Carbone chose from a menu of five angry hands. One was angular, and looked like a modern city skyline, which he liked, but it wasn’t direct enough, when it came to the King St. transit pilot and how he felt about the politicians at city hall.
A middle-finger ice sculpture. “Best investment I ever made,” he says.
Chef Carl Dahl watched it come to life on a cold Friday in January. Dahl didn’t know what it was, until one part of the sculpture kept rising.
That’s funny, he thought. That will get some attention. Then his phone started buzzing. Kit Kat’s sleepy Twitter account percolated with anger. Dahl tried to explain that it wasn’t directed at transit riders, but that didn’t work, so he started blocking people.
“They’re not our customers,” Carbone chimes in, from the front table, where he has recently finished his sausage and penne pasta, his fedora resting on a statue of a cat on the windowsill.
In the middle of an ongoing feud, in which no one can even agree on the facts, Carbone sips a glass of Riesling, and his cellphone rings constantly, with calls from reporters, supporters and unofficial advisers. He perks up every time someone takes a photo of the current ice sculpture, which on this February day is a block with “Make King Great Again” chiselled in. When a man peers past the sculpture into the restaurant, Carbone gives him the finger, joyfully, as if to say, you’ve come to the right place — and the guy on the street laughs.
All those people who got offended — no sense of humour, he says.
“I’m not trying to be insulting.”
No regrets, no apologies.
“What, you’re not supposed to fight city hall?”
Al Carbone was born in 1953 to Rita and Pasquale Carbone. The Carbones left Italy in 1949, spent two years in snowy Timmins and then settled in Niagara Falls, where the aroma of Rita’s Calabrian cooking floated throughout the house, enticing people into a trance like in the old cartoons. Pasquale was a blacksmith by trade who worked at the Niagara Parks Commission, sprucing up the famous floral clock. The Carbones taught their four children — Al was the second oldest — about hard work and good food.
Carbone was a busboy at 12 in Niagara Falls, and by the 1980s, then in his late 20s, he had moved to Toronto, where he waited tables in restaurants including the Royal York’s Imperial Room, shaving his moustache to get the job.
“I did what I had to do,” he says.
He rented a storefront that would one day become Kit Kat Italian Bar & Grill, west of John St. He lived there and sold sausages from a grill on the street. Aside from Ed Mirvish’s Royal Alex theatre and a few restaurants, he was surrounded by parking lots, a car wash and warehouses. He pulls his glasses from a case labelled “Al Carbone’s glasses” to flip through the old newspapers that chart his rise, from guy with a barbecue (1980s), to guy with a cappuccino and sandwich bar (1989), to guy with a hit restaurant (1993).
He and his partner Cathy Horvath — they met on a plane to Belgium in 1983 and started dating not long after — started Kit Kat in 1989. It was initially a variety store and lunch counter, and when they closed each night, Horvath would cook at the apartment down the street, where they were then living.
The SkyDome opened in 1989, and Metro Hall and the CBC headquarters in 1992 and the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993. Carbone and Horvath fed the people who built the neighbourhood, but Al always wanted a restaurant with a proper kitchen. No banks would lend money, but they started renovating the variety store, where they had a 20-year lease. John Maxwell, who ran Joe Allen’s on John St., gave them his old patio wood, and they built their back room around a tree, and the booths that would one day seat John Candy and Shania Twain. A lot of good chefs helped out, Horvath says. It was hard work, but fun.
By the ’90s, Carbone was “unofficial mayor” of the city’s hottest neighbourhood. In 1993, he was one of the driving forces behind the Entertainment District Association, calling for businesses to promote and beautify the area.
The Mirvish musical Miss Saigon was packing them in at the Princess of Wales from 1993-95. The U.S. dollar was high and drawing tourists north. The Jazz Festival was in the parking lot across the street in the summer. There was so much parking. In the Star’s entertainment and gossip columns, Carbone was a fixture, driving customers around in his Cadillac Coupe De Ville. His restaurant was a hotspot and he was at the centre, stopping by the table to chat, making connections.
Those same articles show his propensity to fight and a .333 average in his best-known battles: he fought tax assessments in the mid-’90s (partial win); the city’s smoking ban in the late ’90s (loss); and condo encroachment in 2013 (loss).
In 1995, as David Horowitz was preparing to open Ultimate Bagel two doors down, Carbone walked through his construction site and gave him advice. He was “the one we were all jealous of,” Horowitz says.
When tax assessments spiked that year, Horowitz was grateful that Carbone led a successful public campaign for relief, worth thousands of dollars. “We all stood behind him,” he says. They all posed for the media, Carbone at the centre, holding the tax bill.
Brian Zenkovich, who owned a nearby restaurant, Istria, in the ’90s, said Carbone had good relationships with his patrons, including city hall types. “He could reach out to these people, so that they would listen.”
Back then, Carbone smoked three packs a day, and in 1996, he opened a restaurant and cigar bar at 117-119 John St. called Club Lucky. (He leases Kit Kat but owns the building on John.) Carbone was one of many restaurateurs who opposed a city smoking ban. He had returned from New York and California, which had similar bans, and he warned: restaurants were shedding money and staff.
He changed up his usual newspaper ads (“Thanks Al, I’ll be back for the Pasta.” — Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones,” and “Bring a picture of your Kitty and Al will give you 10% off your food order”) to something more pointed. “TO SMOKE OR NOT TO SMOKE! WHOSE CHOICE IS IT ANYWAY?”
His business didn’t die, but he notes it suffered before it came back. Club Lucky became Kit Kat 2, and a few years ago, Carbone closed it.
People have blamed cold weather and dark theatres (the much-anticipated Come From Awayhas only just opened) for the current struggle. Carbone rejects that.
Maybe his business will bounce back once the King pilot hits its groove?
“No, no,” he says. “The jury’s out already.”
Carbone talks often about the TTC’s woes, the overcrowding, the underfunding, the fare evaders. One evening at dusk, he points out all the people waiting for the streetcar, impossible to see because of the sculpture blocking his front window. He tells me to stand on the chair. (“Please don’t stand on the chair,” a server says.) We go outside, and Carbone narrates four streetcars coming and going, leaving a crowd behind at King and John. They eventually board, everyone except a woman and her stroller.
“Now that’s sick, they should make room for her,” he says. “That’s what I’m against.”
Although Carbone says it’s “too much damage” for two minutes saved on the streetcar, the King St. pilot has been hailed by transit users as a game-changing, world-class-city kind of move.
For years, overpacked streetcars, many crowded with Liberty Village residents, have crawled along King. As of November 2017, cars have been restricted between Jarvis and Bathurst, and they’re forced to turn right at certain intersections. But they can drive straight through other stretches, like from University Ave. to Peter St. On-street parking has been removed, and in the spring, the second phase of the pilot begins: parts of the curb lane will be turned into pedestrian spaces, public art hubs and patios.
Joe Cressy, the local councillor, says the project is needed in one of the city's fastest growing neighbourhoods. It isn’t perfect, but he is heartened by the support for it. He says any time you change a street, there is pushback, and some people “just don’t want to see change.” He notes that in the past, some claimed the G20, the smoking ban, and energy policy changes would kill their businesses, but that didn’t come to pass.
“We haven’t taken the necessary steps to prepare our city for the 21st century,” he says. “The easiest path to re-election in politics, is to do nothing . . . but doing nothing is not what the city needs. This is necessary change.”
Over lunch with Cathy Horvath, Carbone airs his feelings about politicians behind the project, and she tells him not to talk so loud in front of customers.
“She’s still mad at me,” Carbone explains a few days later. “She wants me to stay low-profile.”
The middle finger is not her style. But she understands it.
“If he feels that somebody is doing harm to him he’s going to fight,” she says later. “He doesn’t care what anybody thinks, but he will defend his friends and his family to the end.”
Not long after Carbone moved to the neighbourhood, developers saw loft potential in the old warehouses and began to pressure the city. In 1996, the city allowed for mixed use.
Cressy says Toronto’s core remained vibrant because of the changes. Over 10 years, the population of the pilot area mushroomed, from 7,500 to close to 32,000, according to city stats.
With that growth came pressure to build taller buildings. Carbone, wanting to preserve the character of restaurant row, fought a plan for a 47-storey condo at 321 to 333 King W. all the way to the Ontario Municipal Board and lost in 2013. (The planned condo will incorporate heritage facades, but is still working its way through the development process.)
In the last few years, at community meetings, residents and businesses have shared their concerns about a neighbourhood many felt was growing too quickly, with too much congestion. The pilot on King comes out of the city’s TO Core strategy, a plan to make downtown a “great place” to live, work and invest. The pilot was seen as a way to “unlock the potential” of King, and create a better street for transit and pedestrians.
“If we can’t get people in and out of the core quickly,” Cressy says, “it’s the city’s entire economy that suffers.”
Carbone will turn 65 this year, and his restaurant is nearing three decades, a rare feat in an ever-changing city. If the fedora didn’t tip you off, he skews old-school. He measures success in number of phone calls, seats in chairs, the people who tell him “right on.”
Many surface parking lots been replaced by condos. Another application for a condo next door, at 301 to 319 King W., is in the pipeline. The on-street parking that he calls “music to a business owner’s ears” has vanished as the city pivots.
Carbone says that condo growth doesn’t translate into diners at his restaurant because many people are mortgaged so heavily they lack money to eat out.
Does he feel left behind by the city’s plan?
“It’s leaving the citizens behind, it’s leaving small business behind,” he says. “They don’t seem to care about it.”
On a quiet Thursday, Carbone is looking for a picture of his parents on his phone, but gets distracted by the photographic flotsam of his life: a cloud that looked just like a dove the day of his mother’s funeral; the trip he and his only child, Max, took to Fogo Island for Father’s Day; a big tomato from his garden; his backyard tennis court in Etobicoke; a charitable dinner; Max drafted to the Erie Otters in 2015. (Max plays with the French River Rapids, in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, and occasionally, on King, in one of Carbone’s protests through street hockey.)
Carbone is showing these photos, because he wants to show who he is: a man who loves his family, friends, community. These were not the descriptors used on Twitter post-middle finger.
“I haven’t eaten at Kit Kat in 20 years; I’d be there tomorrow to support them had they acted like they cared about any part of the city but themselves,” one tweet says.
“You know how much bulls--- that is?” Carbone says. “I ignore them”
More tweets are from “loyal customers” that will never be back. Carbone doesn’t buy it: his customers are his friends.
“Read some more,” he says, showing a photo of his son at prom.
Chef Carl Dahl walks to Carbone’s table. He says in this industry, the customer is always right and political opinions aren’t usually on the menu. He tries to respond respectfully, but people aren’t really listening.
Many are leaving one-star reviews on the Facebook page, and those hurt.
Dahl says he isn’t sure how the restaurant became associated with right-wing politics, but having PC leadership hopeful Doug Ford, and councillor Giorgio Mammoliti make cameos with the finger may account for that. “So what, it’s a democracy,” Carbone says.
Carbone echoed Trump’s election slogan in an ice carving, but he has donated to mayoral campaigns of progressive types like David Miller and Joe Pantalone. He made no donations in Toronto’s 2014 race. Asked to classify his politics, he quips “two lefts don’t make a right.” In 1997, at the height of the smoking ban, he considered a mayoral run, but ran for council in his downtown ward, finishing third.
Carbone talks about the war on the car and the “St. Clair disaster” and calls his critics “lefties who want to put a streetcar on every street.” He called Trevor Dunseith, the transit rider who interrupted his press conference in late January, a “plant from (Councillor) Gord Perks’s office.”
Dunseith says he is a little embarrassed that he said “screw you” to Carbone that day on live TV. The U of T student works downtown as a server, and commutes from Parkdale. For him, the pilot has been a revelation in reliability, a subway on the cheap, and the middle finger had been jabbing at him. As media gathered, Carbone called for the pilot’s end, and said drive times on nearby streets rose by 12 minutes. (The latest city data shows travel times vary by less than a minute.) Dunseith challenged Carbone. He says he is not a plant, though he hears such things from “Ford Nation faithful.”
“Their evidence is always so strange, like I mispronounced a word therefore I was reading it from a script,” he says.
I show Carbone the series of maps that urban planner Gil Meslin tweeted, showing the amenities within a five-minute walk of Kit Kat: TIFF Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, Metro Hall, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Rogers Centre, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Princess of Wales Theatre, 1,500 hotel rooms, 4,000 covered parking spaces. Carbone, still searching for that photo of his parents, takes a passing, skeptical glance.
“We know what’s around here, other people don’t,” he says. “If you’re coming from Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga, do you know what he knows?”
Over at Mirvish Productions, they say 80 per cent of the customers come from outside Toronto. It used to be that half of the Mirvish market came from the U.S., but the Americans never really came back after SARS in 2003. The theatres have targeted southern Ontario, and yes, some of those people have been confused by the changes. Spokesperson John Karastamatis forwards an email from a woman who lives out of town and will skip The King and I this summer:
“I would love to see this, however as long as King street is closed to motorists I am unable to attend anything along King Street.”
Karastamatis wrote back, noting cars were not banned. In most cases, he wrote, it is actually easier to drive on King — just turn onto it at your closest intersection.
“We need you! The theatre artists need you! The restaurant workers need you!”
Kevin Vuong, 28, lives in a condo nearby. Partly spurred by the finger, he launched King Street Eats to encourage people to dine out, and win over some fence-sitters in the business community.
On a brisk February night, he hosted the inaugural dinner next door at Hey Lucy! The mood was jubilant with talk of quicker, 17-minute commutes from Liberty Village. Carbone showed up near the end, ordered a drink, and sat quietly to the side.
Vuong wondered if it was really him. He googled an image to make sure, but then Carbone approached him: “Do you know who I am?”
Vuong clarified it wasn’t an “everyone but Kit Kat” campaign, and Carbone invited him next door for dinner.
They settled into the back booths and agreed to disagree on the pilot. Carbone explained his motivations, and regaled Vuong with stories of when he sold sausage clandestinely, waving customers over when it was safe and the “hot dog police” weren’t around.
No minds were changed, but they had something in common. Each had been attacked online for his efforts and each thought the other was a nice guy. They planned a King Street Eats event at Kit Kat — where they’d leave the politics outside.
On a Tuesday night, Al’s brother John sits at a back booth. The smell of garlic fills the air, Cat Stevens sings about what a wild world this is, and two saleswomen from Montreal walk in and give John Carbone a hug. They eat here every time they’re in town: it’s cozy and Carbone remembers their names.
At Kit Kat, there are about 20 employees, and many have a habit of sticking around: Kevin, Donna, Joanna and David have all worked here for close to 20 years, and John Carbone, who is also a partner in the restaurant, says loyal customers are helping them through. The Carbones won’t give specifics (“I’ll open my books in court,” Al has said) but say a recent Sunday saw 50 people when they say they’d normally have 170.
“We just want to keep our jobs, be here for another 30 years,” John Carbone says, as the restaurant’s red lights wash over his somber face.
He says his older brother isn’t so much of a showman as he is a person who fights for the little guy.
But there are several “little guys” in this story, the small-business owners and the transit riders. The highlights from the latest stats show a 16-per-cent increase in all-day ridership along the 504 and 514 King cars; a four- to five-minute improvement over the slowest streetcar times in the evening commute; and increased reliability. During rush hour, average ridership was up by 452 people an hour at downtown pressure points in January. There are fewer pedestrians on King since the pilot began, but the city data shows a similar decrease on Queen.
Using data from Moneris, a company with the biggest market share of point-of-sale devices, the city found that spending in the pilot area had increased 21 per cent from October to December, mirroring the rest of the city’s habits at the time, and that customer spending was in line with seasonal patterns for the past three years.
“If we were up,” Carbone asks, “why would we oppose?”
Tony Elenis, of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, says the Moneris data is misleading, because there are other sales processing companies, and he believes that many large businesses with online sales skew the data. He says a recent self-reported survey of around 50 of his estimated 130 members along the street showed January sales figures, on average, down around 20 to 22 per cent compared to January 2017. He says restaurants west of University are suffering more than those in the core, and some don’t want to go on the record because of the social media backlash.
Elenis wants more data: from restaurants, point-of-sale companies, online reservation firms. He asked his members if they’d be willing to open their books to a private auditor. Most said yes. “When somebody says that, I believe them,” he says.
Todd Sherman, whose Urban Dining Group has 20 restaurants in the city, including four in the pilot zone, says Carbone has good intentions, but he doesn’t think sculptures (there have been several iterations) are the way to win people over. Sherman says there is now a competitive disadvantage to operating on King. Compared to last year, he says three of his restaurants west of John suffered double-digit sales decreases up to the first week of February, and another east of Yonge had decreases in the single digits. His other Toronto locations are mostly flat against last year’s sales, and he says he would give exact numbers to any “qualified city official” with a non-disclosure agreement.
He wants the street to have its old vibe back, and wants to see the pilot pause after 7 p.m. and on weekends.
Over at Spin, a ping-pong bar just west of Spadina, they’re offering TTC riders discounts if they show their Presto card or transfers. General manager Andrew Bascom says the King pilot hasn’t affected business — but patrons aren’t usually driving. As a lifelong Torontonian, he says it’s nice to see the city “try and do something,” but he doesn’t want to pick fights. “We don’t have an opinion one way or another, but it’s happening. Why not embrace the side that is affected?”
Another effort by Kit Kat, in early February, received more positive press. The restaurant organized a hockey game on King, moved for the streetcars, saluted the drivers, Al passed out pasta fagioli and there were signs with a more positive message: “Cars, Pedestrians, Streetcars = Vibrancy.”
In mid-February, before the city released its latest numbers, it sent an update to the business community. Ridership on the route remained “high” until 10 p.m. on weekdays, and officials didn’t see enough evidence to allow an exemption during evenings and weekends. A Forum research poll released that week showed public support for the pilot slipping, possibly because of “publicity stunts,” according to Forum president Lorne Bozinoff.
The Entertainment District BIA has not taken a public position on the project. Karastamatis thinks the city has mishandled things, and as he watches the emails fly among business owners, angered by the city’s latest updates, he says there is talk of lawsuits and protests, which he thinks won’t help.
“This is downtown’s Vietnam War,” he says. “No one is going to come out a winner.”
Transit advocates say there needs to be more data, more time. Carbone says he supports transit riders, but only wants the pilot operating in the morning rush, when Kit Kat is closed. What about the evening? Won’t riders be stuck in congestion?
“They’re not getting stuck,” he says, although city documents note that the pre-pilot King car was slow, unreliable and overcrowded, delayed by traffic signals and turning vehicles.
What if someone turns left?
“Leave the left-hand turns out, that’s OK, it’s not a problem.”
John Tory’s favourite dish at Kit Kat is the sausage and penne pasta. Tory and his wife have been diners for decades, and they were last there during TIFF — but he isn’t willing to cede to Carbone’s demands, because the city has to do what it thinks is right. He acknowledges there are businesses that have had challenges, but says the city is trying to help in ways that don’t offset the encouraging transit gains seen in the data. He cites free lot parking, an ad campaign, and a changed message to reiterate that King isn’t broken, but open for business.
Tory has dined out on King St. a handful of times since the pilot launched but he’s avoided Kit Kat, not wanting to provoke: “He’s put up these ice sculptures and clearly said they’re directed at me,” he says. “That’s fine, I’m a big boy, I get that kind of reaction from people from time to time on issues.”
Tory hopes business picks up and believes it will, with recently concluded Winterlicious, and a hit show like Come From Away, and in the spring, more patios and public art.
Tory hopes to one day return to Kit Kat.
“Al is very lovable in his own funny way.”
Carbone is late on the Friday when the King Street Eats group comes to dine. He had been on the phone with a reporter, lost track of time, but when he shows up in a suit and tie, Kevin Vuong thanks him for hosting, and highlights the quirks of the restaurant, like the live tree in the back that customers rub for good luck. Everybody claps.
“I’ll chat with every one of you,” Carbone says as the sunshine pours into the back dining room through the skylight. “I’ll have a coffee with every one of you.”
For Norman Di Pasquale, a vocal supporter of the King St. pilot, it feels like entering the lion’s den, but with great espresso. As chair of NoJetsTO, which opposes jets at the island airport, he says he is used to dealing with businesses that align against a cause and get their customers on board.
“Al has been a huge part of the problem,” he says, as he waits for his meal. Di Pasquale wanted to be here to show “every single business” that the pilot can have a positive impact. Before he leaves, he compliments Carbone on a great tiramisu.
Toward the end of lunch, another King Street Eats diner, Pedro Marques tells Carbone how much his commute has improved. “How can we help you?” Marques asks, standing alongside Carbone’s booth, offering suggestions: What about online reservation service like OpenTable? Too expensive, didn’t work for us, Carbone says. What about offering a pickup service for people heading home, once the city offers the two-hour transfer? No one wants to hop off, Carbone says. There is talk of old generations, new generations, small profit margins, empty seats, how you can’t stop change.
“Your food is delicious,” Marques says. “The key is attracting a new demographic.”
The diners pass out pro-transit buttons. Carbone takes one.
Kevin Vuong is staying positive. He noticed that Carbone’s latest ice sculptures — one said Make King Great Again, the other, Save Our Streets — had been removed out front, an act of good faith, he says.
Carbone says they melted.
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