Special to KT by Dave Scharf
I don’t know Norm Aitken and Peter Robblee, the owners of Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar, which closed on Monday, November 10. I’ve never met them. And, my heart goes out to them. As the owner of a restaurant with my own share of struggles, I am very empathetic to what Norm and Peter must be feeling. The restaurant industry is very challenging. It’s not easy just staying open. I am sure it’s even harder to come to the impossible decision to close.
I am a newcomer to Ottawa (I moved here in 2011). I had no idea that Juniper had been open for almost twenty years. I knew it only from driving past the current location. I often thought, I should go. It looked fantastic. And I am sorry that I did not.
Fine dining is a tough niche. It’s much harder to survive in fine dining than it is in the fast casual niche that my restaurant, The Flying Banzini, occupies. If you are fine dining you need to be an “it” spot. When you are serving sandwiches, pizza, burgers, shawarma, etc. you don’t have to be “it” – you just have to be convenient and dependable (although it’s nice if you can be an “it” spot, too).
I am not a chef. I don’t have it in me to operate a fine dining restaurant like Norm and Peter. I don’t have it in me to face the big, big challenges of fine dining. Imagine working to stay in the foreground of consumers’ minds for almost two decades. This is a big challenge. There are a few other Ottawa restaurants I can think of that are facing the same dilemma as Juniper. Instead of feeling saddened by closing, relish in what you achieved. You operated a successful fine dining restaurant for almost 20 years. Wow. That is an amazing accomplishment. Bravo.
One of the recurrent themes of Juniper’s closing has been, “Communities need to support local business or risk losing it.” True. But, as a business person, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect this of the consumer who are our neighbours, the people in our community. It would be nice but it’s not realistic.
Look at all the non-local restaurants that are packed. Big box stores – Montana’s, Boston Pizza, Kelsey’s, The Keg, Moxie’s, etc. – that are full. Obviously, there is a huge market for dependability. People like to know what they are going to get. People want consistency. I am not suggesting that Juniper was inconstant. No. What I am suggesting is that this is a huge burden that all of us small, independent start-ups face. From the consumer perspective, we represent risk. The consumer must choose between big box (dependable) and local independent (uncertain). There are those who prefer the latter but the market tells us, clearly, that most people prefer dependability.
You want a burger? You have two choices. Which do you choose – McDonald’s or Fred’s Burger Shack? A lot of people – probably most people – pick McDonald’s because they know exactly what they are going to get and that’s important to them. It makes it hard on the rest of us but that’s the reality of the marketplace and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. Some start-ups succeed of course. John’s Quick Lunch has been chugging along for forty years. The Works is a remarkable local story (when I moved here in 2011 everybody told me to go to The Works – there are now twenty-nine locations including St. John’s, boy).
So, I agree. Communities need to support businesses that they cherish or they will lose them. But, as a business person I think it’s folly to expect support just because we are local. Not to mention that Boston Pizza, Tim Hortons, The Keg, and Canadian Tire are franchises. So, really, they’re local businesses anyway.
I hope that the community will sample local business. And, I hope that if my colleagues and I live up to your expectations you will come back. But I don’t expect you to come back just because we are small local business. We need to work extra hard to earn your support.
Dave Scharf is the owner of The Flying Banzini.