“It’s the best investment I’ve made in my life”: Why the owner of a Toronto restaurant gave each of his staff members a five per cent stake in the business

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The last year has been hell for restaurants, but for Oyster Boy founder Adam Colquhoun, desperate times call for generous measures. Last week, Toronto’s preeminent mollusc evangelist gave six of his staffers a five per cent share in Oyster Boy—a reward for their hard work, but also a pretty great way to future-proof his business: “A lot of people have left the industry over the last year, and when we’re all opened up again, great people are going to be hard to find,” says Colquhoun. Here he talks to Toronto Life about how his new partners convinced him to get on delivery apps, why oysters may be the cure to the current sex drought, and his plans for post-pandemic expansion.

You became the best boss in Toronto when you offered a five per cent share of your company to six of your staffers, no strings attached. How did you make that decision? It’s certainly not the norm. 

Well I’ve never been normal, but what’s normal anyway? We’re all on one planet with seven billion other people. If you can get some of those worlds to coordinate with your own, that’s pretty cool, and I feel like I have six of them in these amazing people that I’m now lucky to call my partners. For a long time I’ve had the goal of giving Oyster Boy over to quality staff who want to keep it going when I’m gone. I’m in my 50s, so the idea was to get that process started. During the pandemic, it’s been incredible to see these people step up and ensure that our business survives. They have dealt with so much in the past year—we’ve had people throw their masks at us, spit in our window or freak out because we’re asking them to maintain distance in our takeout line. To a certain extent, I understand why people are acting out, but I’m not okay with my staff, who are working so hard, to be on the receiving end of the abuse. When I made them the offer, the first thing I said was “I’m not giving you anything you haven’t already earned.”

Okay, but giving up 30 per cent of your business at a time when restaurants are suffering? Did you consult a financial advisor?

My financial advisors all live in my head, but I did sit down and figure out how it would work. Based on previous valuations, I put the value of the business at $500,000. It’s probably worth less than that right now, but it will be worth more in the future. I just wanted a way to price the shares. The agreement is that these six employees get five per cent each, worth about $25,000. They can keep the shares even if they decide to leave, and in two years, Oyster Boy will buy them back for $25,000. Two years because until then, the plan is to put our profits into the business. I have seen some people on social media saying that I’m saddling my new partners with a bunch of debt. That is absolutely not true. Oyster Boy has no debt other than the current government subsidies that we are taking advantage of. My feeling is that a year from now, when dining rooms are full again, earning the loyalty of six amazing people for $150K—that’s nothing. It’s the best investment I’ve made in my life.

What kind of reactions did you get from your new partners?

I guess at first there was a bit of incredulousness and suspicion—maybe they thought I was kidding or I was crazy or something. It didn’t come as a big surprise, though. It’s something I’ve brought up before, and we started talking about it seriously about a month ago. The timing just felt right. There wasn’t one big meeting, it was a bunch of individual conversations. And then I wrote the offer sheet, and we had a ceremonial signing.