When Toronto went dark in 2003, the only thing on Arron Barberian’s mind was his multi-million dollar wine collection.

North America’s largest power outage hit that summer and suddenly, Barberian had hundreds of bottles in sizzling heat and enough unrefrigerated prime rib to feed about 500 people.

The restaurateur had amassed the wine and food for his steakhouse, Barberian’s. And luckily, the landline phone still worked, so he contacted insurance companies and urgently ordered about 200 pounds of dry ice to save the wine.

Then, there was the food. Barberian had already prepared enough juicy prime rib to make hundreds of sandwiches, so he quickly gave them for free to passersby on the street.

Amid the chaos of the blackout, Barberian made a lasting impression on his community that summer.

More recently, the Toronto-based restaurateur is known as the person who proposed renaming Yonge and Dundas Square. He has also been outspoken about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the service industry, and in 2014, he was the victim of an attempted mugging outside his restaurant.

But his actions during the infamous blackout on August 14, 2003, that shut down power across the northeastern United States and most of Ontario, initially cemented Barberian’s presence in the press.

Arron Barberian poses in the wine cellar at Barberian's Steakhouse in Toronto. Photo by Ian Willms for Canada's National Observer.
Arron Barberian poses in the wine cellar at Barberian's Steakhouse in Toronto. Photo by Ian Willms for Canada's National Observer.

The outage started in the afternoon when power lines came into contact with overgrown trees in Cleveland, Ohio. From there, gigantic power surges rolled through Ontario, New York, and Michigan like an electric tidal wave, knocking power out. Nearly 100 people died, and more than 50 million people were left in the dark in most of Ontario and across eight U.S. states. In most regions, power was restored the following day.

When North America's largest power outage hit, Arron Barberian scrambled to save his restaurant's multi-million dollar wine collection. Years later, both Barberian and Ontario are better prepared. #energy #power #electricity

The outage caused the loss of almost 19 million hours of work in Ontario alone and created a 0.7 per cent decline in Canadian GDP in a single month, according to Hydro Quebec. Workers from the accommodation and food service industry in Ontario, Gatineau and Quebec lost over 135,900 hours of work in the second half of August following the power outage, reported Statistics Canada.

The minute the lights went out, Barberian knew he was in trouble. “I looked up and down the street and knew it was big,” he recalls. “Our neighborhood has a reliable power grid, but when the power goes out, I know it’s going to be significant,” he adds.

By about 5:30 p.m., Barberian realized there was no way the restaurant could open that night but his team had already prepared a lot of food. So, as commuters in downtown Toronto battled with subway closures, failing traffic lights and office building evacuations, Barberian handed out sandwiches and ice cream to people on the street.

“There’s nothing worse than waste in a restaurant. It’s the saddest thing to throw something away instead of giving it away or serving it,” he says.

Despite saving the wine, Barberian recalls how difficult it was to deal with the insurance companies. The large businesses were fine, but insurance companies didn’t understand the risk small businesses were facing, he says.

The restaurant didn’t have a backup generator at the time and still doesn’t. But, “it’s something I think about almost every single day,” Barberian admits.

While the Toronto restaurant is only hit by one or two power outages every few years, the restaurant’s sister establishment, Harry’s Steak House, in Etobicoke is prone to two or three power outages a year.

Exterior View of Harry's Steakhouse in Etobicoke. Photo by Harry's Steakhouse.

The exterior view of Harry’s Steak House in Etobicoke. Photo by Harry’s Steak House.

“We’ve finally pulled the trigger in Etobicoke and are installing a generator in the next few months. The neighborhood in Toronto is powered by an underground electrical supply, so there’s less of a risk,” he says.

After the blackout, a Canada-U.S. task force was established to investigate the causes and recommend ways to mitigate future outages. A list of 46 technical and policy recommendations was published in 2004, stressing the critical need for widespread, mandatory reliability standards and penalties for non-compliance. The standards ensure the integrity of North America’s interconnected bulk electric system.

Reliability standards were previously only mandatory in Ontario, according to the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (ISEO). The standards existed in the United States but were voluntary at the time.

In 2007, new legislation was adopted that pronounces, monitors, enforces and standardizes clear roles and responsibilities for system and transmission operators across North America. Today, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and the Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC) define the reliability requirements for the North American bulk electric system.

The 2003 blackout was caused by operational deficiencies, poor communication and lack of training. Despite progress toward a more reliable power grid, however, there are now increased risks from extreme weather fueled by climate change and cyberattacks. These escalating threats must be addressed in system contingency plans, says the ISEO.

Reflecting on past power blackouts, Barberian noted the necessity to improve Canada’s energy infrastructure. “Canadians need to respect the need for infrastructure improvements. We normally wait until things break to fix things and we’re still paying for it.”

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