By Zenith Wolfe
With a desire to put the controversy of the past year behind them, the new owners of Ottawa’s Stella Luna Gelato Cafe are keen to continue to build the business as an inclusive, welcoming space.
The gelato and coffee shop was first opened by Tammy Giuliani on Bank Street near Sunnyside Avenue in 2011 as a family business. Over the years, the local favourite dessert spot expanded to three more locations in Wellington Village, Carleton Place and Merrickville.
However, Stella Luna became embroiled in controversy last year during the “Freedom Convoy” occupation, when Tammy made an anonymous $250 donation through fundraising platform GiveSendGo. A data leak revealed her donation, which she later said she regretted, sparking threats of violence toward staff and causing her to temporarily close the store.
Last month, Giuliani’s son Zachary Giuliani took over as the second-generation owner alongside his fiancé, Christopher Berneck.
“I’m happy to be stepping to the side while the next generation takes over,” Tammy said in an email. “(Zachary and Christopher) have worked tirelessly over the past decade and are very excited to lead the way forward, bringing fresh ideas and enthusiasm to the community.”
Tammy is no longer involved in operating Stella Luna, although she offers gelato catering at weddings.
Zachary admits that some customers have never forgotten or forgiven the incident last year and that it has impacted how people perceive Stella Luna. While he says he doesn’t expect everyone to come back, he hopes the community will notice his dedication to rebuilding an inclusive and engaging space.
“Our goal is to show through example,” Zachary said, adding that Stella Luna tries to remain “apolitical.”
Zachary says around half of Stella Luna’s staff of more than 50 people identify as part of the LGBTQ2S+ community. They have diverse social and cultural views, with employees hailing from countries such as Germany, India and Portugal.
Since the incident last year raised a lot of concerns among the team, Zachary says he engages in open conversations with them.
The process has been difficult, he admits. Having worked at the family business since he was 16 in every position from janitor to barista to supervisor, the weight of responsibility mounted unexpectedly during the pandemic, he says. Two years of stress and uncertainty were capped off by the convoy’s arrival, the “scariest time” in his adult life, he recalls.
As a trauma counsellor, he says he knew he had to cooperate with the community to move forward. He says this decision pulled his staff together.
“The team became part of my family in a more real way than ever before because we found a common ground,” Zachary said. “We’re all here because we love the business and have differing opinions. But when you’re part of this business, you are loved.”
That atmosphere is especially important, given that some of the employees have chosen to make the business their career – a level of dedication that Zachary says is unusual for the industry. This is informing his new philosophy to make future decisions in consultation with his staff, he says.
“I tell them all the time, ‘I want to make this your dream job,’” he said. “We want to utilize the knowledge and the skills of all our team. We’re moving more from a single-narrative space to a collective space.”
Zachary and Berneck met in 2018 while studying at Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University. Despite being in different programs – Zachary in psychology, Berneck in fashion design – they met in a shared sociology of sport class.
After dating for two months, Zachary invited his boyfriend to work at Stella Luna’s Merrickville location over the summer. Berneck said he jumped at the chance.
“It was an opportunity for us to really delve into the depths of our relationship,” Berneck said. “We were living there, working there (as) the only two staff. It taught us some valuable lessons.”
Berneck is putting his visual arts education to good use by turning the walls of Stella Luna’s Wellington Village and Bank Street locations into galleries. He plans to host a series of art exhibitions that rotate every two months, showcasing local artists found through the networking portal Ottawa Arts Engine. The first show will open in May.
“It’s hard to get your art out there,” Berneck said. “I think there’s always more space that should be dedicated to art and I know that Ottawa has a big arts scene.”
They’re hosting the launch of a new fashion line produced by a local designer on May 29 and have several live music performances in the pipeline. They’ve also partnered with Quebec-based maple syrup distributor Älska Farm, Ottawa-based Shanti Tea and other local artisans.
Zachary says it’s all part of his goal to provide Ottawa with a safe, community-building space. On a larger scale, it’s also his way of promoting and creating connections between local businesses that have been struggling to stay afloat through the pandemic, he adds.
“The biggest fear for a small business is that we’re all going to get taken out and replaced by a big corporation,” he said. “To survive, we really do have to work together.”