I’ve been going to UB (patrons’ lingo of United Bakers Dairy Restaurant) for many years.
Truth be told, my brother married a wonderful girl named Irene, who works there with her amazing mom, Helen Zellermayer, Manager of United Bakers. It was here that Mrs. Z. introduced me to the delicious pea soup when I was near term with my son Nathan (11 years ago) and promised me that this pea soup would give Nathan a nudge to come into this world.
Sure enough, Nathan was born the very next day! I often come back to UB with my family, or when I’m headed downtown.
I stop by to see Helen, Irene and many of the wonderful staff and make sure I pick up some of their wonderful Challah bread, their infamous Latkas or yummy cookies. If it’s for a quick coffee or a meal, Helen, Irene and many of the staff make sure they stop by to greet me and sometimes take the time to chat and catch up.
I’ve never seen ANY quick service restaurant deliver faster service than UB. It has always been fresh, hot, and delivered with a smile.
I’ve come back time and again for over a decade and I always see the same employees, more than content to be part of this amazing restaurant. My experience has prompted me to write about UB, their history and what makes them such a successful and renowned landmark in Toronto today. Philip Ladovsky, owner of UB, was kind enough to lend me some of his time to allow me to properly craft this post.
When I decided to write about UB, it became even clearer how much companies like this one have become such a rarity. It brought me back to last summer 2012 when we put together a conference called SocialMix.
There we hosted GaryVee, who spoke about the importance of companies succeeding in what he coined, “The Thank You Economy”. What he said resonated with me:
Acquisition is a commodity….. but the most limited supply in the world is Effort!
“Getting customers is cake….Acquisition has been mapped.” Behavioural and data scientists are figuring it out. They are getting a better understanding of the buying cycle and have integrated this into customer touch points.
At the end of the day, there is only one game we’ll be playing: Retention. That means Life Time Value (LTV), Share of Wallet… and when Effort and Human Caring come into play. And that is hard. “What if that company has done nothing to show you a gesture or to listen to you or to show they care? Would you stay?” As per GaryVee,
All marketing is going to get back to the way it used to be in the Butcher Shop or Mom and Pop store where they knew your name, your kids name and your dogs name. That’s the way humans like it……Remember the small-town rules? The Mom and Pop shops knew context on the end customer. And they used that context to do business with them.
Where it All Began
Fortuitously, United Bakers just celebrated their 100th Birthday last year. It was truly a testament to what they’ve accomplished during its tenure.
In 1912, a young couple, Aaron and Sarah Ladovsky opened a bakery/coffee shop in downtown Toronto. They had just arrived from Poland, and were intent on making a living in Canada.
Their plan was to bring in the “flavours of life they left behind”. They set up shop at 156 Agnes Street, then the “heart of the Jewish Ward”. They hung out a sign that read “5 cent Coffee House”.
They called their new business THE UNITED BAKERS. They sold their breads and dairy meals, prepared on the premises and soon it became a popular place to stop by.
Their patrons were all new immigrants new to Canada, from those just arriving to those who had time to establish themselves. At this point in history there was an influx of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe arriving in Canada. The Jewish community was expanding.
Many a newcomer to Toronto enjoyed his first meal at United Bakers. From the start, United Bakers was a haven of stability in a turbulent new world.
The patrons relished in the hospitality of United Bakers. The flavours of the Old World were comforting:
simple, country-style Polish cooking, with the emphasis on delicious and filling, comfort foods…The recipes used the basic vegetables they had been raised with – peas, beans, onions, cabbage, potatoes – peeled, chopped, diced and cooked slowly, until the aromas and flavours that connected them to their past were coaxed from the pot – often enhanced with a pinch of ‘secret’ ingredients like parsnip or paprika and always, with a little sugar
Immigration expanded as newcomers worked tirelessly to bring their families to Canada.
This required extra support from organizations back home in the form of emergency loans, insurance, sick benefits etc. Aaron Ladovsky returned to Poland to offer monetary support for the arrival of new Torontonians and encouraged others to take advantage of the opportunity.
Over the years, United Bakers prospered and it “became the hub of political and social activity”, attracting everyone from factory workers, businessmen, artists, writers, poets from all walks of life.
Payment was based on the honour system: you came to the cash register, recited what you’d eaten, and were charged accordingly. Not a few times a patron who was short on funds would eat for free…The Ladovskys turned no one away trusted that those they quietly assisted would one day provide for themselves, and for others too,
The strong foundation upon which these traditions were built continues to this day. United Bakers has long since moved from its Spadina location and now has a well established business at Lawrence and Bathurst.
Given its history you would assume that the Ladovskys would opt to expand the business. They have not. As Philip explains:
We are in one location because we decided long ago that we want to operate our business personally, and that means being there in person. Imprinting a service philosophy upon a large and ethnically diverse staff requires rules, guidelines and training; but there is no substitute for the presence and personal participation of an owner. We have a wonderful team of managers who are in constant and close contact with myself and with my sister Ruth. But we consider it our privilege — and our responsibility– to be here to set the tone.
” Great Customer Service”. Aren’t these words self-explanatory?”
At UB there are many regulars – the same faces I recognize every time I set foot in the restaurant. I asked Philip what makes customers keep coming back? He indicated that customers are people who have decided to spend their money at your business.
Service is the role the business must play in meeting the customer expectations. UB encourages their staff to be themselves, and that motivates them to take personal interest in their customers. As Philip states,
Great customer service is almost unquantifiable: who can anticipate all the myriad expectations customers have in their imaginations? But great is a pas between the two parties, and this has everything to do with attitude: if your interest is satisfying the customer, and making them feel at ease, you have the right attitude. Training can help smooth the edges of your approach, and can teach the server/ staff the most efficient and inexpensive way to achieve customer satisfaction, but there must first be an attitude of willingness to serve and a desire to satisfy.
I scrolled through their website and found patron stories from 1940s that have given lustre to the history of United Bakers. Here are a few that I’ve found noteworthy:
In 1948, I travelled from Germany and arrived at Union Station in Toronto. After my long journey, I walked out of the station and looked around to figure out where I was going to head next. A gentleman came up to me and asked me if I would like to have breakfast at one of the finest restaurants in the city. I happily accepted his invitation and he took me to United Bakers on Spadina where I ate my FIRST Canadian meal. It was the first real hamaishe breakfast I had since being liberated from a concentration camp in Germany. This was such a memorable and important moment in my life as it was my first true experience with Toronto and Canada. For the last 64 years I have continued to return to United Bakers at least once a week and enjoy great dining with my family and friends. Everytime I return it brings back the wonderful memories of my first day in Canada and my first meal at United Bakers. Milton B
I am now in my 85th year. When I was a boy of 8 years of age, I lived at 308 Spadina Ave. in an apartment above a dry-cleaning store. A few stores north there was a “United Bakers” store. My Mother would send me twice a week to the bakery to get bagels. It was a small store with about six tables. Customers would come in for coffee and a bagel. Mr. Ladovsky, the owner, would give me hot fresh bagels – what a delight! He was a gentle soul and cheerful and I remember it was a joy to go there. We still continue to go to the Lawrence Ave. location for lunch or dinner with our children and grandchildren, who also enjoy the haimishe atmosphere and the delicious food.
I grew up in the Kensington Market area and going to United Bakery with my parents was always a special treat. After we moved to North York the trips were less frequent. When UB opened at Lawrence Plaza my Mom and I were thrilled (Dad had already passed on). It became a special place for Mom and I to meet weekly for lunch or dinner. My Mom passed on a little over a year ago. In her later years, even as the dementia got worse, the one place she would remember was UB. I took her there until the very end. She would always make me wait for a booth to become available and she would always look around and marvel at how busy it was and tell me how she and my Dad would always go to UB when it was downtown. I would always have to take home an order of the pea soup for her before we left.The soup and egg and onion was what she always ordered.I hope you last another 100 years for future generations to enjoy.
Legacy is greater than currency
On the UB website, it states, “We probably knew your grandparents, and we’d like to know you and your children too”.
Philip notes that he enjoys a wonderful advantage: his grandparents gave his family a “seven decade head start”.
Ruthie & I appreciate our good fortune at the position we’ve inherited serving as a meet & eat destination for many, many people. We love what we do, and we hope to continue to work with our staff and our customers to maintain UB’s niche as ” the restaurant that feels like home.”
After all, in the profound words of GaryVee:
Caring for the end user who is buying our products… is ALWAYS the right thing [to do]. The ones who WIN feel it, execute and they they tell others how they did it….The world is changing. The eyeballs and ears of our customers are going in different places. If you’re not there. You’re going to lose.
Happy Belated Birthday UB! Here’s to another 100 years!
Founder at ArCompany, and Co-founder of Salsa AI, Hessie is a seasoned digital strategist, and intelligence analyst having held senior positions for top ad agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience in social tech, online publishing and artificial intelligence like Yahoo! Answers, Overlay.TV, Jugnoo and Cerebri AI. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Cognitive World, Towards Data Science and Marketing Insider Group.