Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto

Martin Watulo, owner of the North York Cora’s Breakfast, peeks out of one of the booths at the restaurant one day after its grand opening.

Cora’s Breakfast And Lunch

Address: 1881 Steeles Ave. W.

Phone: 416-665-0201

Hours: Mon. to Sat., 6 a.m. - 3 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Capacity: 140

Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $40

*** 1/2 (out of five)

The Cora phenomenon began 20 years ago when a divorced mom took over an abandoned Montreal lunch counter and started making a fortune off of breakfast. Today, there are more than 80 restaurants bearing her name across the country, but it wasn’t until this week that Toronto joined the list, with the opening of the latest Cora’s in a North York mall.

Cora Tsouflidou started her first restaurant in 1980, as a divorced woman with three children to support. She sold it to work at a much bigger restaurant to hone her business skills before opening the first Cora’s on Côte-Vertu Boulevard in London. Her story is straight out of Mildred Pierce, the 1945 drama starring Joan Crawford, without all the murder, of course, and the Chez Cora name has become an institution in Quebec, while the company has won numerous awards, including Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year, and recognition as one of Canada’s 50 best managed companies.

Martin Watulo discovered Cora’s while dating his Quebec-born wife, sitting down for breakfast at a Cora’s in Chicoutoumi. He’d been thinking of leaving his bank job and going on his own, and Cora’s was the best idea he’d seen yet. “We thought this was a great atmosphere, it’s a great concept for breakfast,” he said. “In Toronto, we don’t have many options for a healthy breakfast, especially, so I thought that in Toronto it’s going to do great, it gives people the options to go.”

A North York native, he took two years looking for a perfect location, finally opening Toronto’s first Cora’s last Monday morning at the corner of Steeles and Dufferin. As a franchisee, Watulo can rely on headquarters for help with much of the basic work of starting a new restaurant. “They (Cora’s main office) have been great. We got this particular location pretty late because of construction. We’ve been staying up late, and they’ve been helping us in terms of staff during opening week alone, to get this whole restaurant set up. We had to clean it and decorate it, and the training has been great.

“I went for six weeks of training both in Montreal and Toronto, and last week they trained our staff ... We have three of them that train each section — we have the service, the kitchen and the fruit section ... The support has been great, food has been delivered — great from the beginning till the end, around two weeks from now, when I finally take over.” And that’s when things get serious because, even with all the help, as a franchisee, Watulo still takes on most of the risk in a cruel business with razor-thin profit margins.

Watulo’s menu will be familiar to Cora patrons in Quebec, with some tailoring for the local market. It’s a remarkable series of variations on breakfast, with egg dishes of every description, waffles, crèpes and pancakes, and the odd appearance of baked beans and cretons, a pork fat pâté, both Quebec staples. Dishes are named after Cora patrons who helped create them, and there are plenty of options for eating light.

The independent fruit station in the kitchen is there for a reason; Cora’s big innovation was introducing fruit, and lots of it, into the Québécois breakfast. There’s a daily fruit cocktail special, a variety of seasonal fruit-based entrées and sides, and a huge, sculptural fruit garnish that delivers vitamins and fibre with almost every meal — my eggs benedict came adorned with a fruit skyline dominated by an apple carved into what looked like the top of the Chrysler Building.

“Everybody wants to be healthy,” says Watulo, “and Cora, right from the get-go, that’s how the menu was developed. The names of the dishes came up because she catered to the customers — I like this, I don’t like that, replace this with that — and if people liked it, if people ordered it, they gave the customers’ name to the dishes. That to me is the key to the modernization, because she talked to her customers about what they want. People are leaning to healthier choices about what they eat, and we have to listen to them.”

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