Eco Equitable harnesses ‘the potential of business to be a force for good’

Anouk Bertner says she has always wanted to use the tools of business to accomplish a social good.

Anouk, who studied business at Concordia University, has worked for more than 10 years with social enterprises and non-profit organizations. After earning her MBA, she saw her colleagues going off into finance or management – but she saw herself taking a different path.

“I’ve always seen the potential of business to be a force for good,” says Anouk, who is close to marking her fifth year as Eco Equitable’s executive director.

Eco Equitable teaches everything from the basics of sewing to more advanced classes. Photo by Ted Simpson

The social enterprise began in 2002 with a French Catholic nun named Lucille Champagne who worked with refugees and new Canadians to begin a program that not only built people’s sewing skills, but also their social skills, helping with integration into the community.

“She saw that when people were getting together to sew, and they were working side-by-side, and they were supporting each other, then that’s really when community happened and when integration was possible,” says Anouk.

Instead of a formal course, “it was much more about getting people comfortable, getting their language skills up, creating community,” she says. “All those things that are really obvious, but are actually quite hard to put in practice.”

Now, Eco Equitable is one of 18 social enterprises and non-profits in McArthur Avenue’s Heartwood House. It offers a range of sewing courses, from beginner’s classes to pattern-making. These sewing courses are a main revenue source to support the social programming.

Eco Equitable is Ottawa’s only textile recycler, and managed to repurpose 10,175 pounds of fabric in 2017. The textiles come from a variety of places, including individual’s homes, the National Capital Commission’s flags and the G7 summit.

Eco Equitable is Ottawa’s only textile recycler. Photo by Ted Simpson

The core of Eco Equitable is its social programming, or sewing for jobs. They work with many immigrant and refugee women in the area, helping them get their skills up for the job market while also providing them with income for their work.

Much of the work cycles back to the community – for example, Eco Equitable makes a lot of conference bags, including bags for the G7 summit that incorporated fabric from recycled Canada 150 flags.

Anouk says Eco Equitable is getting more recognition in the wider Ottawa community – recently, it received the Community Builder of the Year award from United Way Ottawa in the category “From Poverty to Possibility.”

“There’s a lot of values-based organizations that are interested in creating products that have a story to them,” she says. “People are getting sick of mass-processed, mass-made, questionable-origin products.”

That, plus the knowledge that Eco Equitable is helping newcomers get established, makes people and businesses feel good about supporting the enterprise, she says.

Being in Vanier, where many newcomers land when they first arrive, makes sense for Eco Equitable, she says.

“I think Vanier is one of the only neighbourhoods in Ottawa that has real personality,” says Anouk, adding that its location within Heartwood House makes its community impact stronger.

“The great thing about all being co-located in a space where we all do similar work is that we can help each other,” she says. “It’s convenient and supportive.”

Eco Equitable is located in Hartwood House on McArthur Avenue, with many other social enterprises and organizations. Photo by Ted Simpson

Vanier celebrates neighbourhood with end-of-summer East Feast

Vanier residents and visitors came together in early September to celebrate the vibrant neighbourhood and mark the unofficial end of summer.

To help say so long to the season of hot, sticky nights – and embrace the coming autumn season – the Vanier BIA held its “East Feast” evening with food, music and street theatre.

As DJs spun old-school funk and party beats, attendees dined on food from local eateries including Muckleston & Brockwell, Bridgehead, Sundae School, Ola Cocina, Meatings, Rico Peru and Beechwood Farmers Market vendors.

Elsewhere, Sutherland’s Restaurant, ClockTower Brew Pub and Royal Oak added to the festive atmosphere by extending the event to within their respective venues.

Outside, Montreal street theatre troupe Labokracboom delighted children and adults alike with their 16-foot giant marionette. An interactive sound installation engaged visitors as they explored music inside a giant glowing dome, while Windows Collective’s interactive experimental projections transformed the exterior of Red Door Provisions. And, as the sun set, Shift Yoga led dozens of participants in an evening yoga session.

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Secret Dinner expands to Montreal Road in Vanier

Vanessa Fidelis had lived in Ottawa for almost 15 years. An avid traveler and curious person, she was beginning to feel like she was in a rut.

But in the fall of 2017, something sparked an idea in her mind – a communal dinner, hosted at an unconventional location, featuring a menu by a local chef. Everything except for the mysterious theme would be left unknown until the last-minute reveal.

The first secret dinner was held in December 2017, outdoors in La Peche -17-degree weather. Nineteen people sat at a long table in a location that had been revealed to them only upon arrival, discovering a menu none of them had seen before.

Vanessa and her fiance, Zach, had brought their friends to that table hoping the experience would spark new friendships and a renewed curiosity for what Ottawa has to offer. The idea worked.

“We just kind of ran with it,” says Vanessa, who has years of event management experience already. Now, every corner of Ottawa is a possible location for the next secret dinner.

“We’ll do no theme twice, and no location twice,” she says. The pair push the chefs they partner with to think out of the box, giving them the creative reins and letting the themes guide the finished product.

Past themes have included Smoke and Shine, which was held at a Christmas tree farm in June, and The Poets, held in July at Vanier’s Beechwood Cemetery.

Several dinners later, the pair are preparing to move the Secret Dinner operations from their home into an office at the heart of Vanier on Montreal Road.

Why Vanier? Vanessa says the dinner at Beechwood Cemetery opened her up to the community and made her feel like it was the right place to be.

She says the Beechwood Cemetery is one of the best-kept secrets in Ottawa, even for locals.

“I had no idea that this cemetery was what it was,” she says. The national cemetery is the final resting place of more than 5,000 soldiers and includes a “poets’ corner” of well-known writers that inspired the theme for the dinner. It also has one of the last unobstructed views of Parliament in the city.

For the dinner, they kept things even more local than usual. Chef Warren Sutherland of Beechwood Avenue’s Sutherland Restaurant was responsible for the Jamaican-inspired menu. Local social enterprise Eco Equitable made the napkins from recycled materials, Queen B’s supplied peanut-free macaroons, Harvest Honey brought honeycomb to the menu, and more – all Vanier businesses and people, who Vanessa says were eager to bring their energy and work to the event.

That welcoming enthusiasm is what convinced her and Zach to move in when the opportunity arose, with the hopes of building on the connections they made and growing Secret Dinner’s reach.

“What’s good for Vanier is good for Ottawa,” says Vanessa. “Everywhere you look in Ottawa, people are willing to help, and people are willing to get on board … Every single day I am surprised and I am shocked at how cool this city can be.”

Secret Dinner is now offering private events as well, which Vanessa hopes will make it a more sustainable venture.

“We know what we have ahead of us, and we know what we’ve done in the past, and I think we have all the information we need to execute some really amazing dinners,” she says.

Vanessa says she hopes the secret dinners help open participants’ eyes to all the interesting things happening in Ottawa that often get overlooked.

“There are these crazy, cool little places in Ottawa … and I think Vanier is really jumping on that bandwagon,” says Vanessa. “There’s so much here. Why don’t we showcase it?”

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.”