If the walls of Toni Bulloni could talk, oh the stories you would hear. Located in Yorkville, an area in Toronto known for high end restaurants frequented by a mix of celebs, sports stars and locals, this Italian restaurant stands out in the crowd.
Its unique fusion of Sri Lankan spices and flavours and Italian cuisine alone is good reason to pop in for a meal. But what will keep you coming back for more is Toni Bulloni’s exceptional service headed up by the owner, Siva.
When Siva first moved to Toronto he went for a coffee with a friend that would end up changing the course of his life. As the two went for a walk, Siva noticed a help wanted sign. It was for the position of a dishwasher at Bloor Street Diner. With only twenty dollars in his pocket he didn’t think twice.
Siva set to work making a name for himself at the restaurant and succeeded in doing so. Six weeks later when he sliced his finger while working, he was given a leave of absence with compensation and had a promotion to a salad maker waiting for him when he came back. From dishwasher to salad maker to sous chef, Siva kept on working his way up in the restaurant. His next step was to become a kitchen manager and he did so when he moved on to work for Empire Groups of Pubs.
Though he was doing well, he decided to give the grocery store business a shot and opened up a Tamil grocery store in Scarborough. He ran the store for five years before turning it over completely to his brother and returning to the restaurant business. For Siva the restaurant business was where he felt he would be most successful.
Faced with financial burdens and responsibilities, similar to when he first arrived in Toronto, he decided he would start from the bottom again. Siva was referred to a cook position at Toni Bulloni. Lacking experience working with Italian cuisine he was asked to wash dishes initially. Recognizing this as a stepping stone, Siva rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
As he worked the restaurant floor, over time he built strong relationships with the regular and occasional clientele, becoming the face of the restaurant. Siva’s special touches include his remarkable memory for customers' names and faces and his emphasis on making sure customers leave satisfied by customizing dishes to their palettes.
Eventually Siva was promoted to managing the restaurant—the owners saw that the success of Toni Bulloni centred on Siva’s relationships with customers
“I grew this restaurant into a multi-million dollar business. I’ve served every VIP, hockey player, basketball player-every star you can name.”
Until last year the restaurant didn’t even have a website—there has never been a need for one. Word of mouth about the flavourful cuisine and welcoming atmosphere has always been the main draw for customers.
Siva has created every menu for the past fifteen years, infusing Italian cuisine with the flavours of Jaffna though he never went to cooking school or had formal training. Based on his customers’ requests he’s also made special items available on order—rice and curry, Jaffna style.
Siva’s success with the restaurant didn’t stop there. His dream of owning it was on its way to becoming his reality when he started making plans to buy it. He even told one of his regular customers that the next time he came in, he’d be eating in Siva’s very own restaurant. But his long time customer had different plans in mind after hearing about Siva’s vision. He asked Siva to come by his office to discuss their restaurant.
So a few days later Siva found himself with an offer he couldn’t refuse—his customer wanted to buy the restaurant and make his son and Siva the owners. Siva wouldn’t have to invest financially in the restaurant but as the heart and soul of it, he would continue to oversee its operations.
Siva asked his lawyer—another long time customer—to review the paperwork and was told that there was no way the offer could be beaten.
“My regulars built the business. It’s a family. The types of relationships that have been formed are the success of the business.”
And the success of this business has fueled that of many charities and not-for-profits. A generous donor to various causes in Canada, and regularly using his restaurant as the space for fundraising events, Siva smiled fondly as he talked about his hopes of one day opening up a school in Jaffna. He hopes for this to be an opportunity for young people in Canada to travel to Sri Lanka to teach and mentor.