John Collins has had a long career in hospitality.
The owner of Daytona’s Kitchen and Creative Catering got his start at the Airlane Hotel when he was 17. After managing banquets there for almost a quarter of a century, he started his own catering company, then he decided to go into the restaurant business. “I purchased what was a Nascar-themed bar and turned it into a restaurant,” he says.
Daytona’s, located on Cobalt Crescent, has become a fixture in Thunder Bay’s food scene. “We were great at breakfast and lunch for many years, then my son-in-law [Andrew Stone] joined me, and that’s when dinner and evenings took off,” Collins says. “He’s one of the top chefs in Thunder Bay.”
When Collins opened Daytona’s, the concept was to create “modern comfort,” he explains. “I wanted a place everyone, from grandparents to grandchildren, from blue-collar workers to doctors and lawyers, felt comfortable.”
At the same time, he continued catering, establishing long-standing relationships with hotels in Thunder Bay, as well as with Loch Lomond Ski Hill and the Fort William County Club.
“People that know me from the Airlane Hotel book us all the time,” he says. When the Lac Des Iles mine had a COVID outbreak, over two hundred workers came to the Valhalla to isolate. “The Valhalla management asked me to take care of feeding them,” he says.
Worried that feeding that many people three meals a day for several weeks would strain his limited staff, Collins reached out to eight other local restaurants and divided up the work. “They were very happy to get some sales,” he says.
The constant changes in pandemic restrictions have certainly made life difficult for everyone in the restaurant business, including Daytona’s. However, Collins says Thunder Bay’s love for local has made some of those challenges easier to bear. “The people of Thunder Bay have been very good at supporting us, and they’re generous when it comes to gratuities for staff,” he acknowledges. "And I know all the businesses appreciate it.”
The city’s food scene has gotten more diverse since the pandemic started, he notes. “Actually in Thunder Bay, new restaurants are popping up, during the pandemic. They weren’t popping up before. It’s an interesting concept,” he says.
He thinks the public is more receptive to trying something new, now that there are so many limits on dining out and on socializing. “You can try something new without worrying about where you’re going to sit down. Now it’s all about the food, not the ambience,” he adds. “It makes it a little harder for established restaurants, because there’s more competition, and it makes us tighten up what we do. We make sure our product is good.”
Daytona’s makes the vast majority of their food from scratch, and in addition to using local suppliers and food producers, the restaurant also has a retail space for local products, such as Prime Gelato, the Bakeshop on Boundary and Brule Creek Farms.
It’s been almost 50 years since Collins got his start at the Airlane Hotel. “I hope I retire shortly,” he chuckles. “I’m going to be stepping down from day-to-day operations, and allow my daughter and son-in-law to run the restaurant.” He still plans to be involved, focusing on special events such as RibFest.
Daytona’s is a family run business; in addition to Collins’ daughter and her husband Stone, Collins’ oldest daughter, a chartered accountant, handles the business’s paperwork remotely from B.C. where she lives. “Everything we do is based in the family,” Collins says.
His goal before retiring is to make Daytona’s easier for his children to run.
“I want to make it simpler for my daughter and son in law, so they have a different lifestyle,” he says. When Collins was young, the Airlane Hotel was the “best at what it did,” and Thunder Bay’s culinary scene was born there, he says. It was an exciting time, but “we worked crazy hours. It wasn’t great for family life; we were never home,” he says.
He hopes his daughter and son-in-law won’t have to work 80-hour weeks like he did, and that they can spend more time with their three daughters, aged five, seven and nine. “I want a better lifestyle for everybody,” he says.