Fine wine brought in from all over the globe, a menu that refreshes itself almost daily and a location in an early 1900s character building are just a few of the traits of that make Blink Restaurant and Bar a unique dining destination. Since opening almost ten years ago, the eatery has garnered all sorts of accolades ranging from local to national throughout the decade. Its success is undoubtedly a team effort, but a team can’t reach its best without a passionate leader.
Sitting at a table by the window near the rustic entrance to Blink, enjoying the generous sunshine of a warm Friday morning, Blink’s owner, Leslie Echino, happily chats about running her eatery and how her early-childhood experiences led her to where she is today.
You already have an incredible 22 years of experience in the food and drink world. How did you start out in it?
Well, I was a child of a single parent living in Jasper. At the age of eleven, my mom told me to get a job, because she couldn’t afford to buy us candy. So, I went to A&W and I got a summer job busing tables. I made $5.25 an hour plus tips. I worked sixteen hours a week, four hours a day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I probably got addicted to the industry back then!
What were the most important lessons you took from your first job that you would say you still use today here at Blink?
I was excited and proud to be earning my own money and buying my own candy at such a young age. I remember, this “taste” of self-sufficiency motivated me to work hard in my life, and it’s shaped who I am today. I think —at that time the loonie just came out— and I remember people often left me a dollar at their tables because, I think, they saw this cute little kid running around, so proud of their job! It was a character building experience. It created a work ethic and a passion for work in me.
Which three words would you pick to define your career?
The first word would be passion. It’s something you have to have when you are in this industry. Working twelve to fourteen hours a day often results in sacrificing friendships, relationships and sometimes even family. So, you have to really truly love what you do.
Wine would be the second word. Ha! Wine was in my family for decades. My grandpa made wine in the Okanagan when they moved to Canada from Italy after World War II. My dad also made wine. Last year, I made my first red and white wine from the grapes I got from a small vineyard in Spain. I love wine, and I could talk about it all day, every day!
The last word I’d use is hard-worker. You have to put in all the hours, and you have to be ready for the fact that some people will praise you and some people will knock you down. You just need to focus, work and just believe in yourself.
You’ve accomplished a lot, but what is one of the most important milestones in your career to date?
Opening Blink and building a sense of community within my own restaurant and within the city. About 10 years ago, I ended up coming to Calgary by accident. The restaurant was called Blink was already open at that time, but it was suffering because of poor management. I bought out the owners and ten years later, it is what it is. Now, I am opening a wine bar next door called Annabelle which should be open later this summer.
I am also very proud to be a board member for Restaurants Canada since February. I represent restaurants from all around Southern Alberta at national meetings. I often help to set policy that affects the gastronomic industry. Also, I’m one of three women on the board out of 32 representatives across Canada. To be able to sit on that board and learn from some of the luminaries in our industry is definitely one of the biggest accomplishments in my career!
Give me one essential skill a restaurant owner or general manager should have and why?
Some of the skills are hard work and leadership. There are misconceptions that this profession is all about sitting at the bar and drinking all night, but this will not get you by. If I’d be doing that, my staff and customers wouldn’t respect me. I’m the one who is clearing tables, running food and opening wine. Everybody looks to the leaders to see their work ethic, and these behaviours then trickle down to everyone – the host, the dishwasher….everyone. I work as hard as everyone else here, and no job is below me.
What would be one piece of advice that would give a person who is planning on opening their first restaurant?
Don’t do it! Ha, ha! I’m just kidding. Managing a restaurant is one of the most difficult jobs. It is one of the three most stressful jobs behind being a fighter pilot or a pediatric surgeon. You have to be willing to give up your personal life. You have to willing to put in an incredible amount of hours and, also, money. This type of business is not very financially rewarding. The average profitability of restaurants is about 3 to 5 per cent. You have to keep in mind that everything goes up year after year like labour, rent, ingredients costs, etc…
It’s a difficult business, and the margins are very low, but when you love the business like I do, you really love it.