Chez Piggy Restaurant & Bar: Feeding a Need for Destination Dining

Fall 2010 - Where do rock stars go when they’re ready to settle down? In the case of Zal Yanovsky, lead guitarist from '60s mega-group the Lovin’ Spoonful, it turned out to be what was then the sleepy bucolic little town of Kingston, Ontario. There, in 1979, Yanovsky and his wife, Rose Richardson, founded Chez Piggy, a restaurant that offered a gourmet dining experience unknown to the area at the time.

The food, the music and the comfortable feel of the bustling establishment made the restaurant an instant classic. Years later Zal reflected, “Our style came from the cooks themselves, myself and Rose included. We've had two Newfie cooks, a Vietnamese chef, a couple of Jewish chefs, a Mexican cook and a Dutch cook. In that way we've always been international.”

Over the years the couple cultivated a loyal and passionate staff of cooks, servers and managers, something rarely seen in the typical high turnover restaurant business. New challenges were constantly sought out and embraced, keeping the restaurant and its offerings fresh and current. The couple owned and managed the business until their passings in 2002 [Yanovsky] and 2005 [Richardson], at which time Yanovsky's daughter Zoe took over.

A Love of Food

Zoe inherited a love of good food from her parents, she explains. “The Pig [the name by which locals refer to the restaurant] was an extension of my parents’ kitchen table, where people loved to come over and eat. My parents loved to travel, and they saw many different, delicious, foods all over the world, so that’s what they wanted to create here. When the Pig started, Kingston was small town, and there was nothing like our menu, which offered lamb and fresh market vegetables when everyone else was serving boiled beef. We immediately had a local following, our food was unparalleled, and our ambiance and service has always been friendly and upbeat.

“People had never seen anything like our food,” Zoe continues. “Our menu has always been very eclectic, international and true to its origins. We served Vietnamese, Moroccan, French, Indian, you name it, long before there were any ethnic restaurants in town. The idea always has been to make really good food from scratch and make it interesting.”

Today, the restaurant, which is located in a historic converted livery stable and courtyard off lower Princess Street in the heart of downtown, has become one of Kingston’s must-visit places for tourists and locals. “We do limited marketing. Word-of-mouth and maintaining our reputation through hard work has paid off more than any marketing plan ever could. People who come to Kingston know they want to come here,” says Zoe. “We have a loyal local following who see us through year-round, but we’re almost even more well-known by our out-of-town customers.”

As a testament to the high regard in which the business is held by its customers, there have been three Chez Piggy cookbooks published over the years, all of which have achieved best-seller status in Canada.

Feeder Business Takes Off

Fifteen years after they started the restaurant, Zoe’s parents founded a sister bakery, Pan Chancho [Bread Pig]. The original concept was to be a feeder business for Chez Piggy, providing the restaurant with artisan “Old World”-style breads and space to bake the desserts for which Chez Piggy remains famous that to this day. Very quickly, however, the bakery business took on a a life of its own.

“The bakery was originally founded to supply the restaurant, but it also had a small store that sold the breads, desserts and a few other items,” says Zoe. “Over the years we expanded into cheeses, dips and spreads, prepared salads, sandwiches, dinners to go, frozen pies and burgers, olive oils and more. By 2001 we were bursting at the seams in our 2,500-square foot building. True to form, Rose and Zal solved the space issue by buying and completely renovating a historic building four times the size, about a block from the restaurant. The business now incorporates a retail store, a full-service restaurant and café, and also offers catering and a private dining room. The staff works in one of three kitchens still preparing all the food from scratch.”

The demands of running two highly successful operations can stretch even the most competent of businesswomen, but Zoe doesn't have an issue with the constant challenges. “The food and the customer service come easily since I love food and people. My biggest stress is making sure that we’re in compliance with federal and provincial laws and have completed the necessary paperwork and forms. In small business the owner and managers must wear many hats, some of which fit great and some of which don’t. Paperwork duties can take hours away from what you want and are passionate about – in my case interacting with staff, maintaining food quality, serving our clients, or testing new recipes.”

Zoe has also continued a tradition started by her parents of hiring chefs based on how they love the business, regardless of where they learned it, as she illustrates. “Our chefs don’t have to be formally trained in culinary schools. We rely on people who love to eat and cook and are fortunate enough to be able to cook well. I love that part of it, because I feel very much that we’re doing the work we’re supposed to be doing.”

Drawing from a world of possibilities, homespun talent and a tradition of honesty and integrity, Chez Piggy and Pan Chancho have become institutions in Kingston, drawing international food lovers to embark on a journey of culinary discovery from the shores of Lake Ontario, and doing justice to its founders' memories with gusto.