Adapt or die: Ottawa Venues launches game plan to score in ByWard Market

Adapt or die: Ottawa Venues launches game plan to score in ByWard Market

Despite doom and gloom haunting some quarters of the restaurant biz, new Lowertown Brewery and Sens House has found a niche with great eats at affordable prices

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JUN 18 14 – 10:40 AM — To succeed these days in the tough restaurant business, entrepreneurs are well advised to present a limited menu that is focused, reasonably priced, and does not try to be all things to all people.

lowertownbrewery_logoSuccess stories that jump readily to mind include Steve Wall’s acclaimed Supply & Demand on Wellington West, Marc Doiron’s Town and Matt Carmichael’s El Camino on Elgin Street, and Bryan Livingston’s newcomer MeNa on Preston Street. Each offers a niche ambiance, and they do what they do extremely well. Their menus do not go on page after page, and are thoughtful and accomplished. Good fortune to them, I say.

Despite disheartening news of late with the closings of two iconic restaurants, I was heartened yesterday to drop by Lowertown Brewery and its soon-to-open companion upstairs, Sens House, which will boast an all-season patio with a unique retractable roof to shelter patrons from Ottawa’s often-insufferable weather. A good idea, in space that is tastefully but rustically outfitted and completely unpretentious, offering well-executed comfort food where people can actually be fed and enjoy themselves for under $15.

That’s right, $15.

And the food is much better than good — it is excellent.

IMG_4388As former Food editor of almost 15 years, lately I’ve been asked to comment on CBC radio and Rogers Daytime about the state of Ottawa’s restaurant business following the announced closings in May of Ottawa’s most celebrated and acclaimed ZenKitchen on Somerset Street, ending five years in business and, days later, the high-end Domus Café, after 18 years on Murray Street.

Zen owner David Loan is still trying to raise money to bail him out of a considerable debt to Canada Revenue Agency, which seized his bank accounts, while Domus chef/owner John Taylor plans to focus his energy on his second restaurant, Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine bar on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South.

In both instances, owners say business last winter was brutal, crippled by never-ending cold, snow, economic malaise fuelled by downsizing in the federal government, and a shift in demographics where patrons more than ever are reluctant to part with substantial coin to enjoy a fine-dining night out. While twentysomethings with pocket change may not blink at spending $4 on a latte every morning, $100 for dinner for most is much more difficult to swallow.

Zen and Domus aren’t the first iconic eateries to close in Ottawa, and likely won’t be the last. Yet despite their high profiles, I can assure you the sky really isn’t falling.

To put it in context, other notable dining departures have included the venerable Chez Jean-Pierre on Somerset, which closed in late 2001 after 20 years serving traditional French cuisine; Clair de Lune, closed in December 2005 after 24 years; Café Henry Burger, shuttered in January 2006 after 83 years across the river in Gatineau (Hull).

brew2Above, Lowertown Brewery at 73 York Street opened quietly on Thursday. The food is show-stopping terrific, and very good value.

Keep in mind that restaurants operate on very slim profit margins. Typically, the cost of food and beverages amounts to 35 per cent of gross sales, wages and benefits come to a similar amount, plus rent, utilities, taxes, maintenance. That leaves a successful operation with something in the order of just five per cent profit on sales — not much wiggle room, especially when faced with lean weeks, or in many cases months.

IMG_4368So, what makes investors want to purchase the likes of Stella Osteria on Clarence Street (effective this month), formerly owned by the Firestone Group and, now, the former home of Hard Rock Café located at 73 York St. to open a small brewery/pub and Sens House, the latter in partnership with the National Hockey League franchise?

In a word, opportunity.

Right, you’ve got to try the bacon candy sprinkled with crushed peanuts at the new Lowertown Brewery.

Stella, Lowertown Brewery, and the soon-to-open Sens House is a project of Ottawa Venues, a holding company operating more than 25 years in the Market area with partners Steve Monuk, Jay Frederick, Todd Brown and Dave Crawford. The company is better known by its unofficial name, York Entertainment.

Ottawa Venues owns about a dozen bars and restaurants — news reports on file are notoriously vague if not conflicting about details — including Steak Modern Sushi, Cornerstone Bar & Grill, Fat Tuesdays, Pub 101, Great Canadian Cabin, The Drink, Live Lounge, Whiskey Bar, and the nightclub Liquor Store Party Room (formerly known as On Tap). It also has a business relationship with Clocktower Brew Pub on Clarence Street and in Westboro, while Clocktower is a partner in the new Lowertown Brewery.

Where other operators are burdened with high rent, Ottawa Venues is in the enviable position of owning many of the properties where it operates. Which means owner/operators are not just buying jobs for themselves, but they can actually make good money if they know what they’re doing. And that, certainly in my book anyway, is a success story.

IMG_4393Left, rotisserie chicken with brisket and Montreal-style corned beef. And house-made dipping sauces, of course, at Lowertown Brewery.

“We are in various ways partners in the Clocktower on Clarence and in Westboro, and Clocktower is a partner in Lowertown Brewery,” says Frederick, who I met at the brewery-under-construction Tuesday with chef Johnny Leung, a partner at Steak Modern Sushi and, now, culinary director of all Ottawa Venues operations.

“The draw for Sens House upstairs is a retractable roof, creating Ottawa’s first four-season patio that opens to the air in good summer weather, then completely closes to shelter heated space in winter.”

Lowertown Brewery quietly opened its restaurant business last Thursday, while the brewery itself should be fully operational in two weeks or so. It serves dark ale and lager, temporarily made by Cool Beer  Brewing Co. in Toronto. The brewing will be overseen by the folks with experience, Clocktower, among the first craft breweries in this city. Meanwhile, Stella restaurant will carry on with no major change through summer, but may change after that. Currently, Leung is looking for two chefs — one cooking more refined, Italian-style cuisine at Stella, and another who is into more rustic, home cooking for Lowertown Brewery.

“The restaurant business for the last three years in the Market, because of the recession, has been challenging,” Leung says.

Adds Frederick: “This past winter has been the most challenging in recent memory. The weather was brutal, people stayed home and tourism is down, which has cut into business.

IMG_4406“We feel the high-end market has been stagnant for the last couple of years,” Frederick says. “The perception is that people are looking for value for money.”

Right, for the herbivores among us: Lowertown’s Kale and seed salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, dill, candied oats, grape tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice.

Where people once dropped $150 at dinner for two, Leung says, today the magic number is less than $100.

“When I was executive chef at Restaurant E18hteen in 2002, people would come for two- and three-hour lunches with business conducted over the meal, and spend an average $150 for two. That was before the government cuts. Now the ideal lunch is under $50 for two, and people don’t want to pay more,” Leung says.

“So, as a chef and restaurateur I have to come up with promotions, something to entice people to come in and increase my market share, whether it’s by offering a unique product like steak and sushi, or happy hours, or two-for-one offers. We have to supply to meet the demand. If we see a niche, then we’re going to go after it.

“The niche for Lowertown Brewery is come-as-you-are, a fun and feel-good place with live music seven nights a week. What makes us unique is all our food is made from scratch, right down to using bones for our real stocks and sauces,” Leung says.

IMG_4401“We have specialty bread made for us by Bagel Bagel, delivered daily. Our food is simple, honest cooking in line with the brewery, which remains faithful to Canadiana — think Lowertown, smoked meat, maple and apple flavours, cranberries. We’re not Asian, we’re not doing southern cuisine, there are no burgers here.”

Left, corned beef sandwich on custom-baked bread with house grainy mustard, slaw, candied bacon in background.

The kitchen is open with bar stools and counter service along the dining side. The brewery will be open for all to see, too. Soon to come is a store-front boutique where people can buy house-made mustard, relish, bottled Lowertown Brewery beer, along with the usual branded clothing.

Food is served on oversized pie plates lined with parchment paper, and all menu items are available for take-out boxed in eco-friendly cardboard.

While I am not a trained critic (although I am an accredited judge by the Canadian Southern Barbecue Association), the rotisserie chicken ($11.95 for half, $22.95 whole) is among the most flavourful and moist I have sampled.

S-l-o-w roasted brisket is incredibly tender, while corned beef is in the Montreal tradition (which is to say, more moist than New York-style pastrami). And, be absolutely certain to try four strips of candied bacon embellished with crushed peanuts ($5.95), or satisfying, crispy kale and seed salad ($3.95 small, $6.95 large) with toasted pumpkin seeds, dill, candied oats, grape tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice.

Various sandwiches, hot or cold, ring in at $9.95.

If the prices don’t win you over, then the quality certainly will. Believe me, it’s a formula you can take to the bank.

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Twitter: @roneade
E-mail: ronlorne[at]hotmail[dot]com
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Left, chef and culinary director John Leung with Ottawa Venues partner Jay Frederick.

brew1Left, brewing tanks yet to be fitted; right, retractable skyroof will make the Sens House second-floor patio hospitable year-round.

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