“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
“Cooking and food really comes back full circle to hockey and family,” says Steve Bitonti.
“My Brother Peter played in the Ontario Hockey League with the North Bay Centennials which took my parents on the road and the novelty of hockey wore off pretty quick with me. I was a hockey fan, I love the game, but I got more invested in football at an early age and so playing hockey was not my cup of tea, and certainly not following my brother around to different rinks every weekend.”
The North Bay-born Bitonti says instead, he would work alongside his grandmother, Viola Dominico who was the resident chef at the Davedi Club for many years.
“At six years old I was rolling meatballs by the hundreds for weddings and events at the club. I basically became her understudy.”
Bitonti is now the President and CEO of The Family Bitonti group alongside his brother.
“It is a catering company which includes The Catering Company, The Food Truck North Bay (which was recently sold), S and P Consulting, The Boat North Bay which is one of the bigger ones under this umbrella, as well as the food and beverage directorship and security services at Memorial Gardens,” says Bitonti.
Bitonti says running the kitchen and overall hospitality business isn’t something he dreamt about as a child but says by the age of 13 he had developed a skill set that others were starting to recognize as a real talent.
However, after graduating from St. Joseph Scollard Hall, Bitonti went to pursue Journalism at the University of Ottawa while playing football. After hurting his shoulder, he came back to North Bay and enrolled in the Canadore College Culinary program.
“My professor Chef Daniel Esposito was probably the most influential person in my career after my grandmother,” says Bitonti.
“That’s probably because he was up against the same kind of wall that I was when looking into making this business and having it be successful in North Bay. Even though he had world-class credentials, it was going to be an uphill battle to build this program. But when I attended the program, it was rated the number two culinary program in the country. It was a great two-and-a-half-year experience going through culinary school at Canadore.”
Bitonti then travelled and lived and worked in bigger markets, but says he came to a crossroads when he had some lucrative offers in those areas, however, “I was also starting to think about coming back home and potentially setting up an all-encompassing hospitality enterprise.”
“My grandfather, who had been a bartender after retiring from CP Rail and the North Bay postal service his whole life, was not doing very well health-wise and he gave me a piece of advice, he said, ‘in my world, is it better to be a king amongst strangers or a prince among the ones you love?’ That’s when I made the decision to come back home and be relentless in my pursuit of being successful in this business in North Bay.”
Bitonti got to work, first working at Cortinas for the Orsi family for five years.
“That was an eye-opening experience because I worked front-of-house and was managing and overseeing a lot of the operation. The Orsi family was so giving and so generous, but I just couldn’t keep up with those hours after more than five years and so I gave them a year's notice that I was going to be moving on,” says Bitonti.
“After that, I started getting into the consulting side of the business, and then Nipissing University came calling and that’s where everything really started to develop.”
Bitonti spent the next 14 years as the Director of Food and Beverage Services, then Director of Operations at Nipissing University–Canadore College Student Facilities.
“At that time, they had no student services, and so we introduced food and beverage services to the students on campus,” says Bitonti.
Bitonti eventually controlled everything that had to do with food and beverage at Nipissing University which included The Wall Bar and Nightclub, a convenience store, catering services, planning orientation week, and more.
“Like all good things it came to an end, and everything got split up,” says Bitonti.
“That’s when Jimmy Kolios had the foresight to pursue The Boat as a viable option. He was very generous and understanding that we wanted to make it work.”
Bitonti says they wanted a five-year lease agreement to turn the whole property around and that the focus was going to be on the menu.
“We wanted the food numbers to be stronger than any other revenue stream,” he says. “Food loyalty program.”
“We were able to compliment both the food and entertainment atmosphere. The Boat is a nationally recognized facility and rated one of the top unique places to eat in the country. When we first got it, it was an old decrepit boat that had 13 different operators in its past 13 years, and now we are on our 10th year in a row.”
They are also approaching a 10th year of feeding the city’s hockey fans at Memorial Gardens.
“Credit to Battalion owner Scott Abbott,” says Bitonti.
“It was part of his vision and he didn’t want to hear the fact that we were in a northern Ontario city that there would be excuses for not having a great kitchen. President Mike Griffin was adamant about realizing that vision and he sought me out.”
Bitonti says there were rumblings from teams in the southern markets that they would have to bring someone in to provide game day meals.
Bitonti says, “We developed a chip on our shoulder that we were going to make North Bay relevant, both on and off the ice!”
“I understood the complexity of everything and when the team came and spoke to me about what they were looking for, there was an instant connection. I knew the owner and president wanted something that was grassroots and community based but top shelf, and my whole team bought into that ideology as well.”
Bitonti says while the idea was met with skepticism at first, the critics quickly changed their tune.
“People from other teams didn’t know if they wanted to eat with us post-game, but they started to hit the scout's room before the games and were impressed right from the beginning. At first, we were doing about 15% of the visiting teams for post-game meals, now we are doing about 95% of the visiting teams who do pre or post-game meals.”
Bitonti adds it was a huge step up from what people were used to during the North Bay Centennials days.
“Our menu is extensive, and we’ve had season ticket holders and corporate sponsors come to our game and marvel how far ahead we are of what they get in their home rinks.
"I’ve always thrived on picking up projects that people from the onset thought were going to be a failure."
Bitonti says the hospitality industry is completely different from other industries.
“It’s a little more convoluted and a lot more complex than what people think, but we’ve found a way to make it work,” he says.
“We probably do 6-12 consulting jobs per year and the OHL has been great for that, we’ve done a lot of things with some other teams, they always like to pick our brains on how we make things work. I am a chef first and foremost and always will be and a businessperson second and I think that is what has given us the opportunity to get to where we are.”
Bitonti says going forward they are launching a platform called HOSP NATION, which is a one-stop shop for hospitality information.
“Educational portholes, job opportunities, training, social media, perks, it's all built around promoting hospitality in your area and eventually it will go nationwide, but we’re starting it in northern Ontario,” he says.
Aside from owning and operating The Boat this summer, they have also taken on the role of operating Ribfest this year which will be relocated to the waterfront. He says they are looking for employees for both of those endeavours this summer, and interested applicants can reach out at [email protected] or [email protected]
Bitonti says when people are contemplating doing this for a career, the best advice he can give is, “At the end of the day you’ll learn a life skill that will help you the rest of your days.”
“Even if this is a pit stop for you, you will be the best at this no matter where you go next.”