Grants available for Vanier merchants to embark on ‘digital transformation’

Vanier merchants have a fresh opportunity to reach new customers while strengthening their digital and online capabilities through a provincial grant program.

“Digital Main Street” stems from an initiative created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas that helps merchants across Ontario achieve “digital transformation.”

That may sound daunting. But, according to Darryl Jullot – the senior manager of Digital Main Street – it’s simply an extension of what has always been at the core of many merchants’ businesses: Connecting with current and potential customers through unique product and service offerings.

“It goes back to the grassroots model,” Jullot says. “We want to help businesses grow.”

Specifically, Digital Main Street participants receive a free assessment and a list of recommended to-dos that identifies technologies and tools that can help merchants achieve their digital goals.

This can include gaining a basic web presence as well as accessing digital tools such as Google My Business, ecommerce shops as well as social media platforms.

Other topics can include website analytics, search engine optimization, customer engagement strategies and Google Reviews.

Many of these have become essential tools for businesses; Jullot points to a quote from bestselling author Erik Qualman: “We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the choice is how well we do it.”

Individual businesses can apply for $2,500 through Digital Main Street to help fund the digital tools and technologies needed for businesses to expand in the digital retail world.

DIGITAL SQUAD

But what does this mean for businesses in Ottawa, and Vanier in particular?

The Vanier BIA recently received a $10,000 grant from Digital Main Street and the Ontario government to help the association form so-called “digital service squads” to assist Vanier merchants.

Squads provide training, consulting and advisory services to merchants who are interested in growing in the digital world.

“Vanier will be leading the way in digital main streets,” says Nathalie Carrier, the executive director of the Vanier BIA. “So many businesses aren’t found on Google searches.”

Digital Main Street’s Jullot acknowledges that the process can feel overwhelming for some merchants, which is why the program is designed to provide support at every step.

“We will literally sit at a cash register with a business owner,” he says. “We help them look at new point of sales, everything from email marketing and product photography.”

In addition to the BIA’s grant, Carrier notes that individual businesses can apply for $2,500 in funding to purchase and adopt digital tools and technologies.

Only 2,000 grants are available until March 2020. More information about applying for the grant is available at digitalmainstreet.ca.

Meet your merchants: Fine art and great stories

When Abed Younes decided he was too young to retire and looked to start up his next new business, he found himself drawn to Vanier.

It’s fair to say he considered his options. Palestinian by birth, Abed lived for years in Germany, working with the Red Cross to help countless refugees and immigrants from all over the world settle into new lives. When he came to Canada in 1990, he rented a car and spent five months exploring the country to better understand his new home.

Vanier has changed a lot through the years and people have a very different concept of the community now. There are more kids around, more families.

He then decided his best way to put down roots was to start his own business. Over the past 25 years, Abed has built up and sold several local businesses, all in some way art-related, including Picture Plus. Roughly three years ago, he started up his latest venture, a custom framing and fine art prints shop on Beechwood Avenue called Art House Custom Framing.

“People ask me why I work with art,” Abed said. “Art is the only way to run away without leaving your home.”

It hasn’t taken him long to build up a strong customer base from among local residents and even nearby embassies with hard work, a focus on quality and word of mouth. Social work is still in his blood and his shop has become a local favourite for regulars who often drop by just to chat.

“This is such an amazing area,” Abed said. “Beechwood is booming.”

Modbox to revitalize St. Charles Church into community hub

St. Charles Church in Vanier was a community focal point for more than a century before declining attendance forced it to hold its final service in 2010.

In 2014, the deconsecrated Beechwood Avenue building was sold to Modbox, a company combining architecture firm Linebox with building and project management firm Lake Partnership that has little interest in ordinary condo projects.

“This is more than a building or a development,” said Modbox CEO Darryl Squires. “It is a chance to do something unique and special.”

The plans for St. Charles Market include a collection of horizontal homes and townhomes wrapping around the original church structure. At its heart, the historic bell tower will serve once again as a welcoming beacon to the Ottawa community.

Construction is officially underway at the site to set the foundation for the new building. The restoration of the church itself was completed in the fall of 2017, and the former rectory behind the church was removed in July 2018.

The repurposed church will be transformed into a restaurant and a local marketplace, while the original grounds will once again serve its neighbours with seasonal attractions and community events.

It’s one of many recent business investments in Vanier, an area offering untapped opportunities for developers as well as cafés, stores, art studios and startups.

“Vanier has an enormous amount of potential,” says Mr. Squires.

Opening a pop-up store

Tarek Hassan launched his first enterprise, Gong Fo Bao, serving traditional Taiwanese steamed buns out of a food cart stationed at a busy downtown intersection near Confederation Park.

But to expand and fine-tune his offerings, Hassan used a strategy that’s becoming increasingly popular among retailers and restaurateurs: a pop-up shop.

The term typically refers to a temporary storefront in a high-traffic area, such as a shopping mall or busy street. While merchants specializing in seasonal merchandise such as Halloween decorations may be the most popular example, major retailers such as H&M and Starbucks have used pop-ups in a former brewery and rented event space, respectively, to test new concepts and generate buzz around their brand.

In Hassan’s case, the entrepreneur took his food truck menu indoors to Fontenelle Restaurant, a Vanier institution that’s served traditional diner food on Montreal Road for decades.

He pays the owners a flat rate to use the restaurant and takes over the space for his “one-offs” after Fontenelle’s closes for the day at 2 p.m. At his most recent event, customers were lined up down the street.

“Fontenelle’s is an old beautiful place. I have wanted to do it for years,” said Hassan.

Pop-ups are typically a win-win for entrepreneurs and their short-term landlords. As in Hassan’s case, an existing restaurant may turn over their space outside normal hours of operation to another business to help cover their rent and the cost of restaurant equipment that’s otherwise sitting idle.

Retailers, meanwhile, may take over a vacant storefront for a reduced rental rate for a short period of time or until the landlord finds a full-time paying tenant.

How to start

Be sure to have a proposal, outlining what you will do in the space, and a professional business plan ready before meeting your prospective landlord.

Pitch the pop-up as a win-win for both sides. Come prepared to tell the landlord what’s in it for them, such as increased foot traffic for their location and the financial upside of the income your temporary venture brings to their unused space.

You may be able to negotiate a reduced rate of the regular rent based on the number of days you will occupy the space or the fixed costs of the empty space. Or the rental payment could also be tied to a percentage of overall sales.

Be sure to research the area you are renting in to get an understanding of what other businesses are paying before approaching your potential landlord.

Pop-up benefits

Ottawa e-commerce giant Shopify has identified seven key benefits to pop-up shops:

  • Testing new revenue streams
  • Engaging customers
  • Creating “get it while it lasts” urgency through limited-time offerings
  • Marketing merchandise around a sale, season or holiday
  • Educating new customers
  • Going to where your customers are

Meet your merchants: Riding the crest

Lauren Power was no stranger to Vanier when she and Greg launched Red Door Provisions two years ago. She had spent her teens in the area, attending high school in neighbouring Rockcliffe.

After 10 years away, she returned to Ottawa to find big changes afoot in her old stomping ground.

“We saw that Beechwood was right on this crest of new development, with proposals for upscale condo projects,” she said. “We knew the potential of the neighbourhood and we wanted to be part of this renewal, part of the boost.”

This “boost” is happening across Vanier, from Beechwood, to McArthur Avenue and Montréal Road.

“Vanier is an up-and-coming place for sure,” Greg said. “It’s changing every day. We like the neighbourhood aspect – everyone knows everyone. It’s not overrun by big commercial entities. It still feels like most every business is unique to this area. Even the big box stores have this community vibe to them.”

As entrepreneurs, location combined with affordable real estate in their choice of Vanier. Manageable startup costs have allowed them to flourish. Their lunch café and bakery features a unique mix of fresh-made treats, great coffees and house sodas, hearty brunch fare, and Lauren’s own signature jams, marmalades, chutneys and garlic scapes.

Local entrepreneurs Lauren and Greg Power run Red Door Provisions, a cafe and bakery featuring homemade goods and a hearty brunch.
Photo by Mark Holleron

Meet your merchants: Tex mex with a Salvadoran twist

The combination of strong Francophone roots and multicultural diversity drew Maria Ventura and her family to Vanier more than 25 years ago.

Their household spoke French and Spanish, and found Vanier to be an inclusive community where they fit right in.

“I like Vanier because you can find people from everywhere,” Maria said. “I’ve raised three teenagers here and I’ve always been happy and comfortable to be part of this community.”

Nearly a decade ago, they realized her husband Roberto’s dream and parlayed his restaurant experience into their own eatery. They chose Montréal Road because it was an affordable commercial location with high visibility and lots of pass-by traffic.

Today, Tukan Restaurant is a bustling success. It’s one of only two restaurants in Ottawa to serve authentic Salvadoran cuisine, with a twist—it combines on the menu with Tex-Mex. Folks from all over the National Capital Region and even further come to enjoy traditional dishes made with rice, red silk bean, plantain, pork and fried fish, with alguashte (a sauce made with pumpkin seeds) and pupusa (stuffed corn tortillas).

“Vanier has changed a lot through the years and people have a very different concept of the community now,” said daughter Carolina. “There are more kids around, more families.”