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?”

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.”