We follow the Assistant Manager, Dining Operations through a typical (and an atypical) day at Hart House’s beloved eatery. Stephen Atherley is dedicated to creating a home-away-from-home atmosphere for patrons, we learn as he shares some insights in this exclusive interview.

If you’re grabbing a blueberry muffin for breakfast or a seasonal soup for lunch at The Arbor Room in Hart House, chances are you’ve already met the Assistant Manager, Dining Operation, Stephen Atherley. He is everywhere: behind the cash register, delivering meals to the eat-in patrons and ensuring that everything runs seamlessly in this wildly popular campus restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner … and everything in between.

Stephen artfully blends exceptional customer service with top-notch organizational skills. He sits down to chat about his wealth of experience in hospitality, what makes The Arbor Room so special and his love of Hart House.

A Seasoned Expert with Thirty Years in Hospitality

Stephen began working at The Arbor Room last April, but he has been in the hospitality industry for three decades. In high school, he worked at a country club. As a McGill University undergrad, he worked in campus pubs.

Stephen Atherley

After graduating, he moved to Toronto and began working at the Bedford Ballroom. The owner was planning to open the Bedford Academy and he needed a manager. When he realized Stephen’s degree was in Business Management, he hired him on the spot. Stephen worked there for four years.

Seeking more entrepreneurial acumen, Stephen next worked as the general manager at Gabby’s at Yonge and Eglinton. After six months, he bought the place and ran it for ten years. “In the course of that, I got married and had a child!” he jokes. “I turned around … and my oldest was three! When did that happen?!”

He was putting in a 70+ hour work week, and he knew he had to make some changes if he wanted more family time. So, he joined Imago, which owns the Duke chain of pubs, for five years during which time he launched the Duke of Somerset.

But this also meant late hours. He and his wife now had their second child. So, he made the switch from pubs to restaurants and joined the Tabule Restaurant chain, where he worked for nine years, opening two restaurants.

His Wife Spotted The Arbor Room Job … and He Went for It

Then, one day, Stephen’s wife, who works in U of T’s Faculty of Music, spotted a job opening at The Arbor Room. Their kids were now 16 and 12 years old and more regular hours would mean added quality time with them.

Stephen Atherley

"I jumped at the opportunity to work with Jerry Horton, Gallery Grill restaurant manager; Aron Mohr, director, Hospitality Services; and Marco Tucci, executive chef and culinary operations manager,” Stephen says adding, “I love coming in to work. Now I'm getting up at 5:30 am to open. I'm loving every minute of it.

“It’s amazing how people who have worked in Hart House for a long time don't realize how special the dynamic is! Everyone treats each other so nicely. It should be the standard, but unfortunately, it's not.”

Approach to Customer Service

Stephen’s approach to customer service is refreshing and unpretentious. At his Gabby’s franchise, he prided himself on knowing the names, food and drink preferences, and favourite tables of all regulars.  

“I see everyone who walks through that door as a special guest coming into my living room or kitchen. Think, how would I treat them and how would I want to be treated in return?” he explains.

The Arbor Room patrons have noticed, and the feeling is mutual: One student told Stephen that he felt like a regular at The Arbor Room … and it was only his first week at U of T! Stephen responded, “Well, this is your space.”

A Typical Day Means “Go, Go, Go!”

Overseeing such a popular spot can be challenging, but Stephen is highly organized. He arrives early to prep for the breakfast rush. (Inside tip: “Blueberry muffins are the hot ticket item!”)

Stephen Atherley

Lunch is another high point. “As anyone who’s been in The Arbor Room at lunchtime knows, we just go, go, go!” He’s thrilled at the popularity of lunch – so much so that the team needed to double the number of specials.  

“It's a good dynamic,” he sums up. “We have a good system where one person does barista work, two are on cash and there's usually my bellowing voice doing expediting and running food, which I enjoy because it gets me chatting with people.”

Then the day winds down at 3 pm when he meets with his night crew, since The Arbor Room is open for dinner. On Fridays, he also meets with the sous chefs to discuss next week’s specials. He tries to ensure there's no food waste.

A Welcoming and Versatile Space

Stephen ponders what makes Hart House special. “It’s a welcoming space. I love old architecture, but it’s the people who make it a nice, warm space.

“I love the fact that you have people coming here to go to the gym or library, to study or meet friends. It's such a versatile space. You can't pigeonhole it,” he says, admitting, “I spent my first month just exploring!”

Alcove in The Arbor Room

“Such a cool place to be!”

As you may imagine, he has a few hilarious stories, but his fondest memory took place one morning: “We have a staff-created playlist. Some staff members love the ‘80s. So, we had a good blend of that music,” he says, setting the stage. “I had finished setting up, when I looked over to see Tony Costa and Lucy Amaral [of the Facilities team] dancing with a bunch of construction workers! Everyone's just grooving. This is such a cool place to be! It's one of those little things that make The Arbor Room so special.”

He encourages students, alumni, community members, staff and faculty members to come in any time. “People are very open and friendly here,” he says. “Even if you just have a seat with some friends or relax by the water station/Zen garden, it will be a wonderful experience.”

He adds that the food is budget friendly and high quality with an eclectic variety for everyone.

The Arbor Room, located on the lower level of Hart House, is open Monday ot Friday, 8 am to 8 pm.