To many in the hospitality and publishing industries, Mitch Kostuch was a man of many talents. He was an entrepreneur, a mentor, a visionary, an astute businessman, a champion of all things culinary. In his personal life, he was a dutiful son, a protective brother, a warm and caring uncle, a loving husband and father, a doting grandfather and a friend. Above and beyond everything else, he was a true “gentle man;” a warm soul who genuinely cared about people and who was infinitely passionate about the foodservice and hospitality industry.
His sudden passing this October leaves a huge void in the two industries he championed for almost 50 years. But, perhaps more importantly, he leaves a void in the lives of his son, Jim, and his daughter, Lynn, and those who worked with him at Kostuch Media Ltd. and TrainCan Inc.
It’s hard to believe I met Mitch 34 years ago, next February. There was no Hotelier back then, no digital magazines, no Internet, no social media. It was a much simpler time for both the publishing and the hospitality industries. As a neophyte journalist, I hungered to get into the publishing industry, but with little practical experience it was hard to gain a foothold. So I answered a newspaper ad for a receptionist at a publishing company, not realizing its magazine served the foodservice and hospitality industry. Despite my university degree, I gladly accepted a job as a receptionist, eager to learn everything I could about publishing.
Back then, the office was situated one floor below SB Capital, at 85 Bloor St. E., a company Mitch and his partner, George Felles, began in 1973. Once a week, Mitch would come down to meet with management and get a regular business update. I instantly recognized him from his picture in F&H magazine; he held out his arm to shake my hand, smiled that trademark smile and welcomed me to the company. I replied, “Thank you Mr. Kostuch,” and he quickly corrected me,“Call me Mitch.”
He never put on any airs. He was down to earth, accessible, genuine and generous. Every Christmas, in those early days, he and his wife, June — a wonderful and warm woman, who could make anyone feel at ease instantly — would open their beautiful home to the Kostuch team. We would have wonderful Christmas gatherings, with Champagne flowing alongside June’s homemade traditional Christmas dishes. Later, as the company grew, and with the passing of June in 2003, Mitch began to host those gatherings at the Donalda Club, one of the city’s most prestigious golf and country clubs, where he was a founding member.
Travel was one of Mitch’s greatest passions. There wasn’t a country Mitch hadn’t been to nor was there a culinary competition he hadn’t attended and supported: IKA HOGA, precursor to the Culinary Olympics; the Culinary Salons of the National Restaurant Association (NRA); the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, or the various World Association of Cooks Societies competitions; and, of course, the countless competitions at home in the country he loved. He was a food aficionado. And nothing made him happier than combining both of these loves.
I remember travelling with him to Frankfurt for the 1988 Culinary Olympics. For seven days, we got up early and met for breakfast, before I reported on the event; then we ate our way through the daily competitions, and, come evening, we would dine at some of the city’s top restaurants. As anyone who has travelled with him knew, it was hard to keep up with him. I’ll never forget when, after a late dinner, he turned to me and said, ‘‘Let’s meet later tomorrow morning,’’ in his authoritarian voice. I was so relieved that I could finally sleep in later. Little did I realize, late for him meant 8:15 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. It’s a story that, to this day, brings a smile to my face. It proved how tireless he was in his support of the industry, attending events, meeting with chefs, lending his ear. He was so passionate about foodservice and hospitality, and he inculcated that love in the KML and TrainCan teams.
Of course, Mitch was also a brilliant journalist. He began his career at the Toronto Star where he was a cub reporter working the City beat. But his first real break came at Southam Business Press, where he spent 17 years working his way through various jobs, beginning in editorial with Heavy Construction News, then moving to sales where he eventually became a “space cadet” (as he always liked to remind us), then publisher, and eventually VP. In 1970, he threw it all away to return to school, where he became the first mature student to graduate from a Canadian university without an undergraduate degree.
Mitch was always charting new paths. After graduating from York University in 1972 with an MBA, he was hired as a consultant at the CRA, now Restaurants Canada. He became very familiar with the CRA magazine, the association’s mouthpiece, and, to everyone’s surprise, he eventually purchased it, beginning a new chapter in his already illustrious career. He liked to tell the story that after he bought the magazine, Marketing magazine featured an article claiming he had bought the fourth-ranking magazine in a two-publication field. But he didn’t let that hold him back. In fact, in 1994, after a heated battle with Canadian Hotel & Restaurant — a Maclean-Hunter publication that existed for 75 years and was our top competitor in publishing — Mitch surprised us all and purchased the magazine, eventually folding it into F&H magazine. Along the way, he always quipped to his wife that she should consider herself lucky that he bought a food magazine and not a plumbing one.
As a true entrepreneur nothing made Mitch happier than launching new businesses and expanding our offerings. In 1989, Kostuch Publications was asked to bid on producing Ontario InnKeeper, a regional publication covering the Ontario hotel industry. We lost the bid but, under then publisher Lorol Cullen, we decided to start our own hotel industry magazine, and so Hotelier was born (this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary).
During those early days of his tenure as owner of the magazines, Mitch created many industry firsts: the “Hospitality 100” (precursor to today’s “Top 100 Report”); and “The Fact File,” a compendium of stats compiled in association with the University of Guelph and Prof. Michael Haywood (now a member of the Hotelier Advisory Board). Those were two of the projects I initially worked on in my early days. I recall driving with Mitch to the University of Guelph so he could familiarize me with the subject matter and introduce me to Haywood, the author.
Mitch was ahead of his time. Years before the fascination with cookbooks took hold, he published The Canadian Menu Manual, a book authored by chef John Schmied and some of the country’s leading chefs competing at the Culinary Olympics. It was one of my first editing projects as assistant editor.
From the beginning, Mitch realized the power of partnerships. He worked actively with the Canadian Foodservice Executives Association, precursor to today’s Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals. Together they started the Top Management Night, an event that continues to this day, every February. He also published supplements on leading Canadian companies such as Canadian Pacific Hotels and Four Seasons Hotels. And, along the way, he became involved in Cuisine Canada, now Taste Canada. More recently, he was instrumental in partnering with Chicago-based Technomic and Lyon, France-based CHD Expert, understanding that together we are stronger.
He carried his love of news with him as we launched the “What’s On! Report” in 1998, precursor to today’s “Newsblast.” It became his baby, and he worked tirelessly to source industry news and write as many stories as possible.
And, when technology entered our lives in a big way with the advent of the Internet in 1995, Mitch was one of the first Canadian publishers to lead the way by creating foodserviceworld.com, nudging the rest of the team to jump on the bandwagon. Where others would pontificate and speculate about the lasting impact of new trends, Mitch would jump into the fray, not concerned about failure but rather excited about the new challenges and opportunities.
I recall travelling to the International Hotel & Motel Show in New York in 1996, where along with my team of editors, we reported live from the show floor on the new products introduced at the event. It was yet another industry first. Mitch recognized trends before many even realized they were trends. And even when we, as his team, would sometimes be reticent, he would be there to push us and nudge us into new areas, recognizing it would force us to stretch our muscles in new directions.
Mitch was a people person. When it came to employees, he let them learn through mistakes. He believed that the more you gave them to do, the faster they would learn to do it and the better they would be. He regularly popped in on employees to chat with them, to water their plants and to talk about the day’s headlines. He valued the young; he was always excited about having interns in the office — he liked their energy, their optimism and their potential. And, along the way, he was a mentor to many, including me.
From the early days, he saw something in me that he nurtured, and he gave me endless opportunities to grow. I remember at one of my first strategy meetings with the company, a few months after starting at F&H, how in awe of him I was, quickly realizing he was a brilliant man I could learn so much from. So I stuck around for a long time, because he gave me endless opportunities to grow and to evolve. He was my biggest supporter, allowing me to do whatever was important for the magazine and the industry. Whenever we attended events together, he would quip that I was his boss.
When I celebrated my 25th anniversary with the company, he gifted me with an incredible trip to Umberto Menghi’s cooking school in Tuscany, Italy, and he did it before an audience of 500 industry executives at the Pinnacle Awards. It remains one of the highlights of my career. Last year, he once again surprised me at the Pinnacle Awards by presenting me with a Lifetime Achievement Award, renaming the award in my honour (see this year’s Pinnacle Award Lifetime Achievement Award winner profile on p. 32). He was always ready for a good celebration — whether it was employees’ birthdays, milestone achievements or commending the sales team as they hit or exceeded budget targets.
He was always at the centre of fun. For many years at Halloween, we hosted pumpkin-carving parties for staff, and not only would he buy the pumpkins but he would also judge the results and reward the best efforts. A few years ago, after hearing about a restaurant operator who had gifted her employees with money to dine at competing restaurants and then report back on their findings, he decided to do the same with our staff. It was a way to involve them and keep them interested. And one year, we even hosted a mock wedding for our then publisher Lorol Cullen, who had surprised us all by eloping. While most owners might have begrudged such frivolity, he welcomed it as a way to build team spirit.
Mitch was a true humanitarian. He was always giving of his time, ideas and money. One of the charities that was especially close to his heart was Friends of We Care. He was instrumental in its growth over the years, and he would educate people about its importance, always urging staff to visit the camps during “Camp Days” in the summer.
One of the things I will miss most about Mitch is the chats we had on an almost daily basis — bouncing ideas for new initiatives off of him or letting him know what I was planning for the days ahead. He was always excited by those new ideas, so much that he could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
Nothing made him happier than new initiatives, because he was an ideas man. When we moved to our current address, at 23 Lesmill Rd., he built a test kitchen on our premises. It had always been one of his dreams, and he thought it would complement the magazine as it would allow us to test recipes for our monthly food column; he also realized that industry suppliers and chefs could use it, too.
In 1996, he saw the growing need for increased food-safety training and vigilance in the kitchen and signed a deal with the NRA to distribute materials from its ServSafe program in Canada. That fuelled the eventual founding and development of TrainCan Inc., in 2001, a food-safety training company he entrusted to his son, Jim. During the past 13 years, TrainCan has certified more than 160,000 foodservice employees.
Right to the end, Mitch continued to do the things that brought him the most pleasure — attending industry events. During his last days, he attended the groundbreaking of Centennial College’s new culinary building with his son, Jim; he made a donation to Taste Canada; and he attended the opening of Little Fin with me (the latest restaurant in the Chase Hospitality Group, and this year’s Pinnacle Award winner in F&H’s Independent Restaurateur of the Year category). Even though I knew he wasn’t feeling particularly well, it didn’t surprise me that Mitch showed up that afternoon. He always wanted to be in the know about the latest and greatest happenings, and he continued to ask probing questions right to the very end, sharing in great food and good conversation.
While he is no longer physically with us, he is woven into the fabric of our lives and the life of this industry. His memory, his legacy and his indelible spirit will guide us to the next chapter at this company. On behalf of the entire KML and TrainCan teams, and the industries he loved so dearly, thank you Mitch, for all you have done and all that you were. We are richer for having known you. We miss you profoundly, but your legacy continues. Rest in peace.