I Ate Lasagna and Garfuccinos at the New Garfield-Themed Restaurant in Toronto
Toronto’s not unlike any other major North American city. Being the fourth largest and trailing just behind Los Angeles in population, it has all the hallmarks of a bustling metropolis: iconic landmarks (one very tall building), two major sports teams, a celebrity ambassador (Drake), enough cultural diversity to make white people feel both uncomfortable and self-congratulatory, and a booming food scene.
But where Toronto differs from other major cities like New York or L.A. is that we’re not quite as confident in who we are culturally, especially when it comes to food. Partially to blame on America's tendency to eclipse Canada’s cultural impact, the Toronto restaurant scene is relatively young and still establishing itself as a destination. We’re always a bit behind on anything trendy (oat milk only just arrived), but mostly as a city — we just don’t know who we are yet. Are we New York, but nicer? Chicago, but more fun? Who knows. Somehow, though, Toronto has found itself in the perfect position to become the first ever city in North America to get a Garfield-licensed (not branded, as I soon learned) restaurant: GarfieldEats.
The “quick mobile restaurant,” a term the owner used to mean delivery app-based, had its soft open on June 5, but I first encountered the restaurant on a dark December day walking through my slowly gentrifying neighborhood of Bloorcourt Village. I stopped in my tracks upon spotting a storefront plastered in orange with a cartoon Garfield and a man in a suit. A speech bubble above Garfield pointing towards the man read, “This is the man who made a pizza out of my face. That’s nice but I’d prefer it in my mouth!”
It wasn’t soon after that at least four different people sent me messages asking if I’d heard about a Garfield restaurant opening; the news had been picked up by blogs around the world. As a writer who spends too much time on the internet, Garfield has unwittingly become a part of my online persona because of my love for how it’s been meme-ified. My career being closely entwined with my online presence, I’ve spoken at length about the odd world of Garfield fan art and culture on podcasts, events, and frequently on Twitter. My interest in Garfield goes well beyond the cartoon I grew up loving. Over the years, as Garfield became less of a dominant force in cartoon culture, the same people who grew up loving Garfield began highlighting the strange relationship between Jon Arbuckle and Garfield. In 2008, a webcomic called Garfield Minus Garfield gained popularity for “Removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arubuckle.” Without Garfield, we’re left with a sad 29-year-old (?!) man talking to himself and his non-verbal cat.
In more recent years, Twitter accounts like GarfieldFanArt and Reddit communities like I’m Sorry Jon have highlighted how Garfield’s simple premise of owner and cat can become a template for whatever anyone wants it to be. The fan art and memes are sometimes dark, sometimes earnest, sometimes NSFW, but mainly a perfect summary of how the internet can turn something with an established universe into whatever they want it to be.
Oftentimes propelled by sincere pockets of fandom, like this viral screenshot lifted from a fan-run Garfield Facebook group, in which a user tells Garfield to “Catch the ISIS rats” and “Squeeze the cheese..(rotten gases) to the point of no return (lifeless),” the meme culture mostly makes fans like me wonder where the sincere lovers of Garfield have gone, and where the cartoon fits in the world today. Hearing about a Garfield restaurant opening felt almost like a fan fiction fantasy— Garfield hasn'teven starred in an animated film made in 10 years. How did this happen?
I needed answers. I began by emailing with the Garfield Eats team in on April 1. By late May, I had exchanged over 20 emails with the community manager. The high volume of emails was mostly due to miscommunication. I would ask when the restaurant was opening and in turn was asked when this article would be published, something that was impossible to know until knowing when the restaurant would open. I mostly wanted to know who was behind the venture. I soon learned it was a Montreal-based entrepreneur named Nathen Mazri, who I have at this point been told multiple times is the youngest ever Garfield licensee.
“He has over 133k followers and believes every human being deserves good food prices = bad food prices and deserve to know the source of their food, farm 2 plate,” I was told in one of the first emails, signed with a quote from the 2004 Bill Murray Garfield movie, “Love me, feed me, never leave me,” which is also written on the storefront.
Slowly, more information on the restaurant began trickling through my correspondence with their team. While they couldn’t tell me when it would open (the date kept changing once they did, as is typical for restaurants), I did find out that the quick mobile restaurant wouldn’t be going through UberEats or any other type of online food ordering app, but through their own specific GarfieldEats app. If I wanted to interview Nathen Mazri, questions were not to include "topics related to religion, politics, and sex as per his agreement with Garfield studios.”
As I waited to speak with Mazri, I spent more time trying to understand his journey towards opening a Garfield restaurant. Deep-diving into his Instagram, I learned he has long identified as an entrepreneur and has spoken on stage at various events, and even once on the Middle East’s MSNBC. In 2014, he spent time in Hollywood and Burbank, where he studied acting (he later told me under the same teacher that taught Ryan Gosling) and co-wrote, produced, and acted in short films mostly about being Middle Eastern in America under a production company called “Mazri Pictures,” which is inactive. In 2016, he self-published a book called, Arabiolosis: The WORST 12 years of hardships has brought the BEST of me in the Kingdom, a self-help memoir described as an “Empowering memoir that will change your pereception of life [sic] of life.”
The opening date of the restaurant was imminent, and I was getting nowhere closer to understanding anything about the operation. Finally, I spoke with Mazri on the phone.
My first question was direct, “Why Garfield?”
“First of all, my partner and I Pascal Haider were in love with Garfield at a young age, the brand lives with us,” Mazri said. “There was relevance. I mean the cat was hungry; he loved eating. It made sense to create a food concept around Garfield. You can call it destiny.”
Speaking with him multiple times, twice on the phone and once in person a day after the restaurant opened, “destiny” was mentioned several times. When he was a child, he said, his mother would give him Garfield cartoons when he brought home good grades. As he began his venture into opening a QMR (quick mobile restaurant), he got to know a Garfield licenser and everything just clicked. Mazri wanted whatever he opened to be a good, honest, quick restaurant.
“It took six or seven months for a deal to be made because it was a new concept and Jim Davis wanted to know more,” he told me. “He said in 40 years, ‘Nobody has ever come to me with such a crazy idea.’” I don’t doubt that.
Mazri revealed more details about the restaurant: all the food would be natural and sourced from local farmers. He spent two years doing research and development to create the “secret sauce” that would be on the pizza, lasagna, and pasta. Overall, the app itself would be a community hub where users could “share nostalgia, and get points, which are called ‘paws,’ which unlock ‘goupons.’ I call it an entergaging restaurant.” (“Entergaging” being a portmanteau of entertaining and engaging, “goupons” being coupon with a “g.”) But more importantly, Mazri believes mobile restaurants are truly the future of food — and a way to maybe take on the big guys in the pizza world, like Dominos and Pizza Hut.
But it all begged the question — why would someone want to download an entire app for just one restaurant? “We wanted to build our own app,” Mazri told me, mostly because delivery apps like UberEats can charge restaurants up to 30%. For staying true to the Garfield brand (which he describes as sarcastic and cheeky), GarfieldEats would rather have their own drivers so they can control and manage hours, branding, and messaging. Upon meeting Mazri at the restaurant, he told me his hope is that anyone can rent vans from GarfieldEats and become delivery drivers. And, if all goes according to plan, drivers will be able to make thousands of dollars every month.
I still couldn’t quite grasp the “why Garfield?” of it all. But something finally clicked as he talked to me about how Garfield “deserved” a restaurant, and more about the difference between being a branded restaurant and an officially Garfield-licensed restaurant.
“We did everything from scratch with partnership from the studio,” Mazri explained. “If we wanted to just stick a face on a box we could’ve done Mickey Mouse.” GarfieldEats was now a part of the Garfield universe. “We have exclusive rights. Cartoon Network doesn’t even have it.”
But more importantly, Mazri explained, “I always wanted to make it in Hollywood, but I made it another way. Not as an actor or a singer. Now, I work with one of the biggest cartoon studios in the world.” The restaurant was a marriage of two of Mazri’s passions, entrepreneurship and entertainment. I asked him about plans for the future of the app, “I don’t know what my plan is,” he told me on the phone. “Would I be producing the next Garfield movies with Jim Davis? I don’t know.”
Weeks after speaking with Mazri, I arrived at the brick and mortar location of GarfieldEats. It was the second day of operation, and Nathen Mazri himself was overseeing the operation to make sure things were running smoothly. Upon entering the small restaurant, where customers are meant to order off iPads mounted on the walls while a video of Jim Davis talking about GarfieldEats played on a loop on televisions above, I introduced myself to Mazri. He was warm, and mentioned how his community manager talked about my “passion” for this story, which she also found a little annoying. He told me that if he had known I was coming, he would’ve worn the custom orange suit Jim Davis, who he described as being like a godfather to him now, had made for the occasion.
He ordered my friend and I chocolate Garfuccinos, and showed us how to order food on the iPads (and to use a 50% off discount code). The interface was difficult to comprehend and we needed his help, we were told that because it was in its early stages there would be some bugs. We settled on ordering one Garfield-shaped pepperoni pizza, the Big Agna Lasagna, and the Farm Salad. Before the discount, and without delivery, the total came to just over $50.00. The price seemed steep considering this wasn’t an eat-in restaurant, but then I remembered: this isn’t fast food, it’s farm-to-plate and Garfield-licensed — this was surely worth what could get you three times as much food at the pizza chain a few doors down.
As we waited for our order, we spoke more about how business was going. He explained to me once more that this wasn’t a franchise (the studio hates the F word), and speaking of f words, people were leaving abusive comments on social media, including “Fuck Garfield.” Mazri seemed to be taking it in stride. He told me he planned to open maybe 20 more GarfieldEats locations across North America. In around 20 minutes — I was told the wait had usually been longer — our food was ready. My two friends and I set out to find a park where we could eat our meal.
Without understanding why, I felt anxious. The months I have spent thinking about GarfieldEats, corresponding with the community manager, and following its progress led me to this moment. My twisted but sincere interest in a cartoon cat had become so much more than a meme. Mostly, I realized a very big part of me believed in this restaurant despite nothing actually following any sort of logic. I wanted this to be the future of food. I wanted to believe that an all-natural, farm to plate, quick mobile restaurant that had games and cartoons on an app would be the game changer I was told it would be, because the sarcastic cat who loves lasagna deserved it. Mazri told me he spent two whole years perfecting the recipes, and I was going to consume his hard work and passion. But as we ate the meal, which barely fed three adults, I kept thinking about everything else I could’ve done with 25 dollars, and how I’d have felt if we didn’t have that discount. The food still needed work.
The packaging, all orange with Garfield comics printed, was meant to be fully recyclable and reusable. This is what that meant: the same box used for the lasagna and salad, which by the end of its use is covered in dressing or cheese, happened to be the same size as a standard tissue box. So when the customer is done with their lasagna or salad, they are supposed to reuse it by storing loose tissues in the box, like a tissue box. My friends and I tried to figure out the logistics, “Where do you find loose tissues?” We wondered. Are you supposed to take them out of another box and into this one? Also, how do you properly clean out the box so the tissues don’t get ruined with sauce residue? I’m determined to make it work somehow, and the box remains in my freezer for a later date.
Despite all this, I still can’t say whether or not GarfieldEats is the future of how we eat food. All signs point to no, but I’m not an entrepreneur, nor do I know what it takes to open and scale a restaurant. Does it matter if the food is good, reasonably priced, or if people still enjoy Garfield? Two people walked into the restaurant while I was there, and they were genuinely excited — not excited in the “poisoned by the internet” way like I was. One was there because his daughter loved Garfield, another fully grown woman was wearing a Garfield shirt and taking photos and videos. What I do know is that spending enough time in dark corners of the internet had me in the same position as they were: extremely excited to eat a Garfield shaped pizza. Maybe Nathen Mazri was able to do what most people can’t: find the space in a Venn diagram for people like me and people like them.