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Waterloo/Cambridge Pioneers: A Brief History of Cerny Hospitality Group

Andrew Coppolino
Written by Andrew Coppolino

With a 35-year history that began at the Blackshop Restaurant in the community of Galt in Cambridge, Cerny Hospitality has the distinction of being one of the pioneers of food entrepreneurism in Cambridge and Waterloo Region. 

“My mom and dad, Jan and Eva, opened Blackshop in 1983 as a 32-seat bistro on Ainslie Street North. I was about ten years old,” says their son John Cerny. 

The young Cerny started washing dishes and making salads and desserts in a family business that has grown to three restaurants in two cities: Blackshop and Melville Café in Cambridge and Solé in Waterloo. In building the hospitality group, with three different restaurant concepts, one thing Cerny has learned is that a restaurant has a soul. “It takes its own direction in a way. You can try to control it, and you can try to guide it, but it’s like a kid in a way. When customers ask for a certain type of food or wine or experience, you try to provide it,” Cerny says. At all venues, though, virtually everything served is made in-house, from demi-glace and breads to cheesecakes and other pastries, in-house. Overseeing it all is Dan Potter, Executive Chef of the group of restaurants, who joined the company in 1998.

A Tale of Two Environments

Blackshop — where Jan Cerny started the tradition of hospitality in Canada for the Cerny family

The Cerny tradition of paying attention to the details of food and hospitality service started 6,000 kilometers from Cambridge. Jan Cerny went through formal hospitality training in the Czech Republic and began his career tending bar and managing restaurants. In the family’s last few years in the Czech Republic, Jan managed a ski resort and hotel in the Krkonose Mountains. “The family lived at the hotel,” John Cerny says. “My brother Alec and I grew up skiing. It was a beautiful environment to grow up in.” 

But realpolitik soon played a role. The Cernys came to Canada in 1980. John’s brother Alec (who passed away suddenly in 2013) had wanted to attend a particular hotel school in the Czech Republic but was not allowed to because the family were not members of the Communist Party. “My parents didn’t want us growing up in that environment,” Cerny says. The decision made overnight, the family left everything behind and took a significant risk to flee the country: they headed to Yugoslavia, ostensibly for a vacation. “We informed officials that we were having car troubles on our way back home and cut back through Austria and filed for political asylum there,” he says, adding that they were there about six months before being accepted by Canada and landing in Cornwall. The family never looked back; a relatively short three years later, they became restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, with Blackshop.

In the meantime, none of the four spoke much English, but Jan got a job as a dishwasher at the London Hunt and Country Club before ending up in Kitchener — in what would turn out to be a serendipitous coincidence. “In 1982, my father got a job working for Henry Krebs at the Ali Baba on Hespeler Road, and in precisely the same spot as Blackshop operates today,” Cerny says. “Though his English was still limited, he eventually decided he wanted to open his own restaurant and left Ali Baba to take the little house on Ainslie Street and turn it into a bistro.” The restaurant’s Blackshop name alludes to a family friend who was a blacksmith and created the original ornamental sign and ironwork. “The chandeliers that are above the chef’s table at the current restaurant are the originals,” Cerny says. With its old-world approach to food and service, other than Greystones Restaurant and Scallions Blackshop was a primary destination for upscale dining in Cambridge — and it offered the first licensed dining patio in the city, too.

A Family Business 

Melville Cafe is next to the Grand River in Cambridge

Jan instituted formal service at the Ainslie Street Blackshop but with genuine care for building relationships with customers. It’s something that Cerny says has been carried on through all the businesses. “The staff is like family, and customers, both old and new, are an extension of that family.” After nine-and-a-half years on Ainslie Street, and after Alec had graduated in business from Western University (John is a George Brown culinary graduate), the family decided to move the restaurant to Hobson Street. John designed the kitchen and worked with the chefs; Alec did all the financials, including what John calls “crazy magic” to make it happen. “The move was a big risk,” he says. “There were few restaurants on the west side of Galt in 1992.” 

With its continental, northern European orientation, Blackshop stayed at the location until 2006 when the family bought the building on Hespeler Road where Jan Cerny had earlier worked for Henry Krebs, and re-opened the 210-seat restaurant in 2007. Cerny points out the attention to detail that was paid in planning the various areas and rooms of the restaurant — each with its own atmosphere and yet with interconnected character — and the décor that is an homage to the Ainslie Street Blackshop.

Throughout the evolution of the company both brothers essentially shared duties and oversight. However, in time John decided he didn’t want to stay in the kitchen and enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce program in the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at University of Guelph. By 1997 Jan had started to slow down and take steps toward retirement — and the two brothers started thinking about another venture. 

“We had a café concept in mind but couldn’t find the right place.” They eventually learned about an old Seagram building in Waterloo where the Mediterranean-inspired Solé now operates: it had been empty for a decade — “a bird sanctuary,” Cerny called it — and was slated for demolition. Notwithstanding, in 1999 Solé was born. It was a big leap for the Cerny family, as well as for the building’s owner, to supply the needed services. “Waterloo already had the amazing Janet Lynn’s Bistro at that time but nothing with the Mediterranean element that we offered,” he says. The beam, post and brick interior of the 150-year-old building is amplified by the rich and striking natural lighting — Solé — that pours into the 130-seat dining room.

A Full Portfolio 

The Mediterranean-inspired Solé operates in the former Seagram building in Waterloo.

While Alec has worked the numbers, John has seen to operations for the group. They always worked together, and still did with the arrival of Solé, but the roles solidified to a degree: John managed Solé and Alec, Blackshop. Solé became successful quickly, a fortunate development that inspired the family to start contemplating yet another project: the City of Cambridge and the University of Waterloo School of Architecture approached them about creating a café in downtown Galt. “We developed a concept that would serve more than faculty and students. We came back to the previous café concept we had had and added more food service, with the same philosophy and approach as the other restaurants when it came to caring service.” Melville Café opened alongside the Grand River in 2004. “With three restaurants, we had our hands full,” Cerny admits, quickly adding there are no plans for a future venture at this juncture. The growth of Cerny Hospitality has allowed him to reflect. “The changes in food in Waterloo Region have been crazy over the time we’ve been here,” says Cerny, noting that the general public’s level of knowledge and education in food has, even in the last ten years, grown immensely. “It pushes everybody to improve and evolve.”

A Legacy of Genuine Service 

In November 2018 Jan Cerny passed away. The family aspect of the business, including the staff and the relationships with loyal customers, remains the central focus at Cerny Hospitality because that is Jan’s legacy — and that has never been lost on John Cerny from the time he was a ten-year-old. “On the service side, it still comes down to genuine care that has been a core value for us. I don’t think that has changed.”  

Blackshop Restaurant
595 Hespeler Road, Cambridge
519 621-4180
info@blackshop.ca

Monday to Thursday: 11 am–10 pm 
Friday and Saturday: 11 am–11 pm 
Sunday: 11 am–9 pm

Solé Restaurant and Wine Bar 
83 Erb Street West, Waterloo,
519-747-5622
sole.ca

Monday–Thursday: 11:30 am to 10 pm
Friday: 11:30 am to 11 pm
Saturday: 11 am to 11 pm
Sunday: 11 am to 9 pm

Melville Café
7 Melville Street, Cambridge
519-624-3984
catering@melvillecafe.ca

Monday to Friday: 8:30 am – 8 pm 
Saturday & Sunday: 8:30 am – 4 pm

About the author

Andrew Coppolino

Andrew Coppolino

Andrew Coppolino is a Kitchener-based writer and broadcaster. He holds a Master’s degree in English literature from the University of Waterloo and has taught at UW, the universities of Guelph, Toronto and Toledo, Conestoga College, and at the Stratford Chefs School. Andrew has written about food for a large number of magazines, is co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press) and is food columnist with the Kitchener Post and CBC Radio Kitchener-Waterloo 89.1 FM. He is publisher of Waterloo Region Eats (waterlooregioneats.com) a longstanding online resource dedicated to food, dining, restaurants, chefs, sustainability and agriculture. In addition to writing for this magazine, Andrew also serves as a regional Eatdrink Editorial Consultant.