John Letnik was born in Slovenia shortly before it was invaded by Axis powers that would fracture the country into several occupied territories. Tens of thousands of Slovenians would be exiled, killed, imprisoned, transported to labor and extermination camps, or drafted to the German military. To keep their six children safe and their family together, John’s mother and father persevered through constant uprisings, resistance movements, and guerilla warfare. Even after World War II they were forced to endure life under communist rule in Yugoslavia
Under pressure, John was forced to mature quickly, and at a young age he realized there was no future for him in Yugoslavia. On August 8th, 1956 he would escape into neighbouring Austria and become a refugee. John was lucky to have escaped when he did, because he soon fell ill and was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer. He had a large tumor on the left side of his neck that had to be surgically removed, and he received several rounds of radiation treatment. John began to accept that the cancer would probably kill him, it this was the first time he felt hopeless to change the outcome of his life, but he recovered both in health and determination.
Early Days In Toronto
On August 8th 1957, one year to the day of his escape to Austria, John Letnik stepped off a boat and onto Canadian soil in Quebec City. From there he boarded a train to his new home of Toronto, Ontario. Unable to speak English and with only two dollars in his pocket, John was determined to make a life in Canada. One of the local German-Canadians took him in and brought him to a local Slovenian church. The church found John a place to live and put him in contact with organizations that could help him find work. Soon John was able to find a job at the Toronto Golf and Country Club working as a houseboy until the club closed for the winter. Luckily, one of the managers would help him get a job at the St. Georges Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke that was open all year.
Over the winter John worked as a dishwasher, learning the ways of the kitchen and English along the way. Over many months he worked his way up to cook and his English was getting better. John would work for several years as a cook, living on the grounds of the country club for a period, before being promoted to sous chef at the age of 19. After saving enough money, John brought his girlfriend to Canada and married her in 1959 (though they later divorced). John decided it was time to move on from the country club and develop his skills. He felt as if there were two roads in front of him: he could either put himself through school to learn proper English and become a certified chef, or he could take the daring chance to make it on his own and open his first restaurant.
John made his bold leap into the restaurant business in 1961 and opened “Pop-In” at Dundas and McCaul. It was a local restaurant and cafe, only serving simple foods. One of John’s most popular dishes was the pork chop and fried potatoes, which sold for 45 cents at the time. John may have not been breaking any new culinary grounds but he was making a living as a restaurant owner and chef. Even more importantly, he was making it under his own power.
By 1966 John had become a successful business man and restaurant owner. He felt the time was right to travel back to Yugoslavia to visit his family. John used his savings to purchase a brand new ’66 Chevy Impala and passage to Europe. He drove from Toronto to New York and boarded the SS France. After a short six day trip John disembarked in La Havre, France, and drove over 1,500 kilometers to Yugoslavia where he would be reunited with his family for the first time in 10 years.
After three months in Yugoslavia, John returned home to Toronto, purchased the building that had housed his restaurant for the previous seven years and sold his business. His trip aboard the SS France had given him a new found love for ships. It was this trip that inspired him to open the first floating restaurant in Toronto. John knew it would be not be simple, but he was also determined enough to make it happen.
On August 8th, 1970, John Letnick opened Captain John’s Floating Restaurant aboard the MS Normac. John transformed the boat into a five-star restaurant and enjoyed paramount success throughout the 70’s and 80’s, attracting tourists, politicians, and famous Canadians, including the likes of Brian Mulroney, Mel Lastman, Robert Campeau, Steve Stavro, George Chuvalo, and Bob Hope. The Normac and Captain John’s restaurant was a beacon of success attracting other businesses to the harbour front.