Captain John’s Restaurant Toronto
A man with a dream versus the city of Toronto who were determined to sink it.
Ivan Letnik was born in the republic of Slovenia, in a country of uprising and internal chaos. Realizing that Yugoslavia held no future for him, Letnik attempted to escape to neighbouring Austria. His first attempt failed but he was successful during his second attempt on August 8, 1956. Shortly after his escape to Austria, Letnik attended the hospital where a tumour on his neck deemed to be cancerous was removed. He spent time in Graz, Austria where he lived with distant family members and volunteered for the Red Cross helping people who had also fled their homeland. Letnik never informed his parents that he was leaving the country, they found out weeks later when Austrian authorities contacted his parents.
When a Red Cross official offered Letnik an opportunity to go to Canada, he accepted it. On August 8th, 1957 a year to the day since he’d fled his home country Letnik left for Canada by boat.
Letnik arrived in Canada speaking no English and with only two dollars to his name. A German speaking couple directed him to resources where he was able to obtain work at the Toronto Golf and Country Club. When the club closed for the season, Letnik found work as a dishwasher at the year round St. Georges Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke. It was there that he learned how to cook food and to speak English. Letnik worked his way up to a cook and was eventually promoted to sous chef by the time he was 19 years old.
The work allowed Letnik to save up enough money to bring his girlfriend over to Canada in 1959 and the couple were married. Letnik had been in Canada for four years now and decided that he’d reached a crossroads where he could either remain at the golf course or he could open his own restaurant. He took the initiative and opened a thirty seat restaurant named the “Pop-In” located at Dundus and McCaul. The restaurant served basic meals such as breakfast, and dinners such as pork chops and potatoes which cost 45 cents.
Around 1966 Letnik bought the building that his restaurant was located in, and sold the business. In 1966 Letnik’s restaurant had earned him enough money that he was able to purchase a 1966 Chevrolet Impala and boat passage to Europe. He drove to New York where he boarded the SS France which took him to La Havre, France. Letnik drove the remaining 1500 miles to Yugoslavia where he was reunited with his family. He remained in Yugoslavia for three months and made the return voyage back home to Toronto.
The Normac began as the “James R. Elliot” built in 1902 to serve as a fire tug. The boat was then sold to the Owen Sound Transportation Company where it was converted into a freighter and passenger ferry. The boat was renamed Normac after Captain Norman McKay who was the founder and manager of the Owen Sound Transportation Company. The Normac was used to ferry passengers and cars through Northern Ontario waters. It was retired in 1968 and then sold to a private owner.
It was the voyage upon the SS France and the dinners served on the ship that sparked an interest in Letnik to open a floating restaurant. His search for a suitable boat took him three years, a search that resulted in the purchase of the Normac.
A year later on July 23,1969 the Normac having been purchased by Ivan Letnik, made its way from Wallaceburg to Toronto. The ship was painted white with a red hull in order for the ship to stand out from the street. The Toronto Harbourfront Commission permitted Letnik to temporarily leave the ship in the Toronto harbour. At the time the area wasn’t an a place where you’d find tourists and restaurant patrons; it was a shipping area filled with warehouses, cargo ships and dock workers.
“Captain John’s” floating Restaurant (1518756 Ontario) was officially opened on August 8th, 1970. The business became a popular tourist location that attracted famous Canadians such as Brian Mulroney, Mel Lastman, Robert Campeau, Steve Stavro and Bob Hope. The business brought tourists to an area of Toronto that offered little in the way of tourism and helped to increase popularity of the waterfront.
While the arrangement to dock the ship in the Toronto harbour front had always been temporary, and Letnik had originally intended to move the ship to Ontario Place, the ship remained where it was until it was damaged years later.
Letnik never forgot what it was like to have nothing to your name. Each year his restaurant in co-operation with the Salvation Army held a free dinner for those less fortunate. Captain John’s also sponsored various city events such as the Hazel McCallion Golf tournament.
The MS Jadran
Letnik had been looking at purchasing a second ship and became interested in purchasing a 296-foot ship named the MS Jadran (‘adriatic’ in Yugoslavian). The ship was constructed in 1957 and contained five levels, 355 staterooms and room for 500 people. In the fall of 1975 Letnik along with a crew of sixteen men sailed to Yugoslavia to bring the ship back to Canada. The ship was purchased from the Yugoslavian government for one million dollars. It arrived in Toronto on November 27, 1975. The trip back to Canada took three days.
The 355 rooms were removed and the ship was renovated for use as a restaurant. In May of 1976 the Jadran opened as a secondary location for banquets and conventions. It was situated alongside the Normac.
On June 2, 1981 a Toronto Island paddle-wheel ferry named the Trilllium went off course and struck the Normac. The resulting collision sent shocked customers and dishes to the floor. Several patrons took their wine bottles with them as they fled the restaurant. There were approximately 270 customers on board at the time.
Letnik wasn’t aboard at the time but arrived shortly after to assist in evacuating people from the ship.
A transport engineer concluded a hydraulic lock prevented the Trilllum from reversing when it approached the slip it shared with Captain John’s. The Trillium’s bow wasn’t sharp enough to cut the Normac in half. A two foot hole in the ship was patched with a one inch thick metal plate. The repair didn’t hold however and the boat sunk days later on June 16, 1981.
Source: Toronto Sun, June 3, 1981|
Letnik took the City of Toronto to court for the damages but the amount awarded wasn’t enough to have the boat raised. The ongoing legal battle would take eight years as it worked its way through the appeal courts but Letnik was eventually able to raise the boat, repair it and sell it.
A second level was opened on the Jadran to accommodate the additional customers after the 1981 sinking of the Normac.
That Sinking Feeling
Since 1991 the City of Toronto allowed the Captain John’s property to be leased on a monthly basis rather than annually. This made it difficult for Letnik to have any peace of mind in way of long-term planning for his business.
The economic situation of the past 20 years and poor tourism seasons have taken their toll on the restaurant. The celebrities that once patronized the restaurant were becoming fewer as were the corporate parties and weddings. Letnik attempted to negotiate deals with the nearby hotels in which tourists received discounts.
In 2002 the restaurant filed for bankruptcy protection as it owed over $5 million to various creditors. Letnik’s bankruptcy proposal involved the repayment of all unsecured creditors owed $5000 or less and a repayment of no more than $30,000 to all other unsecured creditors.
In August of 2008 the public health unit ordered the restaurant closed after finding 11 infractions including ‘Operator fail to maintain premises free of sewage back-up’ and ‘Operator fail to ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated’. Letnik was fined $2,160.
In 2009 Letnik’s lawyers argued that the ship didn’t rest on a foundation and couldn’t be assessed for property taxes. A judge ruled that since the ship had been moored to the shore since 1975, it could be taxed. Letnik attempted to appeal this ruling but was denied.
That same year Letnik put the restaurant up for sale at a list price of $1.5 million which was subsequently reduced to $1.1 million. Despite nearly forty years of operation, Letnik was unable to sell the restaurant.
Around this same time period the reviews for the restaurant began to indicate that the level of service and quality of food was diminishing.
The Final Blow
In June of 2012 the Toronto Port Authority rescinded the lease agreement for the slip where the ship was moored. Their reasons were that the restaurant owed over $500,000 in back taxes, rent and utility payments.
The City of Toronto shut off the supply of water to the boat. This resulted in Letnik having to cancel four buses full of Montreal tourists destined for his restaurant. The decision to turn off the water in turn forced the Health Department to issue an order closing the restaurant due to the staff’s inability to sanitize dishes and wash their hands.
Letnik was given until July 27, 2012, to remove the boat’s gangplank and all restaurant signage. The Toronto Port authority invoked marine law which prevented the ship from leaving the dock until its debts to the city and Port Authority were paid.
The gangplank decision was later rescinded by Waterfront Toronto, and Letnik was allowed to stay on board his ship. It should be noted that Waterfront Toronto only came into existence in 2001 and yet were given authority over a ship that had been in Toronto for over 40 years.
The removal of the ship would be no easy task as the engine has been removed and the ship is mirred in mud. Unable to find an interested buyer, Letnik was given an additional month by Waterfront Toronto.
By 2013 Letnik owed the city of Toronto $648,947 in taxes, water charges and penalties, and $216,871 to the Toronto Port Authority in rent. There was also more than $650,000 in mortgages. The city of Toronto began processes to seize the ship which led Letnik to declare that he wouldn’t abandon the ship and might even chain himself to it.
The question became, was this a ship or was it property? How could one prevent a ship from leaving the dock while at the same time taxing the ship annually for $40,000 in property taxes. Letnik attempted to have his residence aboard the ship be deemed a tenancy under the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA). He felt this was further enforced by the city billing him for realty tax. In addition, the city terminating the supply of water would be considered a violation of the RTA. Letnik’s claim was heard on April 10, 2014.
By March of 2014 according to documents filed with the Federal Court by the Toronto Port Authority, Letnik now owed $1.7 million in realty taxes, insurance, berthing, mortgage and other fees, some going as far back as 2002.
Letnik, who had been living aboard the ship for years now retreated to his rental property on Glen Everest Road.
The Toronto Port Authority gave a deadline of August 22, 2014 for the Jadran to be removed and scrapped. Three bids were submitted for the process.
A court ordered appraisal listed the ship as a $125,000 liability because the cost of insuring and scrapping the ship could run as high as $725,000, greater than the $600,000 scrap value. One bidder even asked to be paid to take the ship off of the city’s hands.
On July 31, 2014, the Federal Court of Canada declared the winning bid to be that of entrepreneur James Sbrolla of the North American Seafood Exchange who offered to purchase the ship for $33,501. Sbrolla had hoped to restore the boat into a floating restaurant. Plans for a new berth for the ship fell through so Sbrolla proposed to have tugboats tow the ship to a private slip where it could be stripped of scrap metal by Priestly Demolition.
In October 2014 the Toronto Port Authority terminated the deal and returned payment to Sbrolla. They indicated that they “didn’t feel comfortable” with having the ship torn apart in the harbour.
“We don’t feel comfortable proceeding with a plan at this point that involves tearing the ship apart in the harbour. We want to be sure we’re doing this right, mitigating risk and removing the ship in a manner that is safe from an environmental and public safety standpoint.”, said port authority spokeswoman Erin Mikaluk.
A documentary about Captain John produced by Shasha Nakhai was released in 2014. It’s titled “The Unsinkable Captain John”. Ivan “John” Letnik lives in his rental property in Toronto. He is divorced and has a daughter in Washington.
After two teenagers were caught vandalizing the property in January of 2015, the Port Authority removed the gangplanks and further reinforced any possible ways into the ship.
On May 28, 2015, the vessel was towed out of Toronto’s harbour before a large audience of spectators and a musical band. The event was broadcast live on CP24 Television.
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