Niagara Region locals Justin Duc and Scott White only met 18 months ago, but this young duo have already opened a killer small restaurant in downtown St Catharines that is getting everyone’s attention.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Justin and Scott to talk about the opening of oddBird, where they found the inspiration for their concept and what they’re planning next.
SCS: How did you meet?
J: We worked together at Tide & Vine Oyster House.
S: Justin was a chef there and I started working there after moving back from Montreal about a year-and-a-half ago. So, we haven’t known each other that long.
SCS: So this is a brand new partnership. How is it going?
S: Ahhh… it’s going great.
SCS: Did you both study here in Niagara?
J: I went to Brock and studied business and then I worked in a bunch of kitchens around the area and across Canada. I’ve never worked anywhere other than in kitchens, but I went to school for business.
S: I went to the apprenticeship program at Niagara College
SCS: So you met a year-and-a-half ago, and both decided you wanted to start your own restaurant?
S: We just cooked a lot of random stuff in the kitchen and it was really fun. So we wanted to emulate places that we enjoy going to and try to do different food.
J: On our days off we would go to Hamilton or Toronto for cool places to eat, because we had been to all the restaurants around here and we wanted something new and different. A lot of our friends did the same thing. So we thought, maybe we can stop some of that flow and get them to come here instead.
S: Just having a small space and making it work seemed interesting to us.
SCS: Why did you decide downtown St Catharines instead of Niagara-on-the-Lake or elsewhere?
J: It made the most sense. I think downtown is an up-coming area, and I think we got in at a really good time. Even two years ago, it is very different now and I think that’s going to continue. Also, the style we are going for wouldn’t have worked out of town or in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
S: If we put this in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I don’t even want to see the reviews. Just our choice of music alone! It would also be difficult out there in the winter months. We don’t have any backers, it’s just Justin and I. We put everything into this, so what would happen if it was dead for six months. And, then in Summer we would be slaughtered, and we are still trying to figure this out. It just made sense to grow with the city.
SCS: What do you contribute the growth of the downtown area?
J: The GTA is spreading all the time. The Go Train is coming, and things like Meridian Centre, Performing Arts Centre. All those things have contributed to it. Also, other places opening in the downtown area like Bolete (restaurant), and Trouble Coffee and Spirits opening soon. The more like-minded places that open the better it is going to be for everybody, cause it’s going to bring people down here.
SCS: It’s really exciting to see! I feel that vibe in St Catharines. Where do you like to hang out when you’re not working?
S: We go to the Merch (Merchant Ale House), Kully’s, Mahtay, Craft (Craft Arts Market) for coffee. We ate this whole street when we were opening. We had so much time on our hands to just go to every restaurant and eat. Most places are closed Sunday and Monday, which is when we are closed, so that kind of sucks, cause now that we are open we don’t have a chance to go out.
SCS: Tell me about the concept behind oddBird, describe it for me in your own words?
J: We wanted to keep experimenting.
S: Yeah. We will order in stuff we have never cooked before just to play with it and see what happens. It’s hard to put a finger on what we are doing. It’s French inspired. I lived in Montreal for a bit and a lot of it is inspired by that. We wanted people to come in and say, This looks like a place you would find in Montreal, and we have had that happen, so – awesome.
The concept really is, here’s food, sit down and enjoy it, drink wine and stay long. We wanted people to eat the whole menu. We wanted the prices to reflect ordering a lot of things and sharing, and people are doing that.
SCS: The night we came in, people were having a great time sharing plates and sitting along the open kitchen. Is that why you decided to flip the restaurant and have the kitchen at the front and the bar in the back?
J: We took this spot because the hood system and the equipment were already here. Our idea was to have an open kitchen where people sat along the bar and it just worked out that this is a tiny space built around a kitchen. We went with it, built a bar, and here it is.
S: Yeah, we knew we wanted a bar around the kitchen but we had no idea what it should look like or the colours etc.
SCS: Did you do all the interior yourself?
S: We had family and friends help us. We painted it and they painted over what we did. We are lucky to have a lot of friends who are good at those jobs. Justin and I like to stay in the kitchen.
SCS: I can imagine there are a lot of lessons to learn creating a restaurant on a shoe string. What has been the most difficult part of opening a small business in downtown St Catharines?
J: Dealing with the City wasn’t the easiest at times. It took a lot longer than we expected.
S: We have had the space since March, and the open date just kept moving.
J: It is what it is, I think everyone deals with the same things when you are trying to get something started. But, overall I would say it was a positive experience.
We had a lot of help from the St Catharines Enterprise Centre, and we are in the process of receiving a grant from them.
S: There have been a lot of people who helped us out.
J: Yeah, the community in general has been so helpful. We have said it a number of times, this probably would have died along time ago if it wasn’t for the help of our friends and family, and the community.
SCS: What’s been the highlight so far?
J: I would say just a busy Saturday night when we see people ordering bone marrow with a shot of bourbon and the people next to them are crushing oysters. The business landed a lot closer to what we wanted it to be than what we expected it to be.
S: When we created our fried chicken we thought it would turn into a fried chicken place, because there isn’t one in downtown. People are still ordering the fried chicken, which is awesome, but they are also eating foie gras and bone marrow and taking a shot of bourbon out of the bone.
J: I would say one of the highlights was when Francoise came in.
S: Oh yeah!
J: Francoise Morisette the owner and wine maker at Pearl Morisette came in. He is a pretty intimidating guy.
S: And, his table got mixed up and he ended up sitting at the bar, but I think it made the experience better for him.
J: He was super excited and said it was like being at home in Montreal. So that is probably one of the highlights so far.
S: Probably just feeding our parents too, and our family members when they come in and experience something that is ours and not just somewhere we work. That’s really cool.
SCS: You said you are fairly young. How old are you?
SCS: So you are right at the start of your careers. This is really exciting.
S: Yeah (laughs), We’ve never really officially said, Hey guys, we’re open, we just opened one Thursday and it was full and it was great.
SCS: So you didn’t want to do a grand opening?
J: We wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing, and we thought it would be slower and we would figure out how to work with the space, and then in time be like, okay let’s do a grand opening. But it has just been crazy since we opened, which is amazing.
SCS: Where did the name oddBird come from?
S: That was a long process. We went through so many names, we looked at Niagara historic names. We finally landed on “bird”. We wanted to be Dirty Bird, but there is a Dirty Bird in Toronto. We wanted to be Little Bird, which sounded nice, but there is another restaurant called that. Justin said odd bird, but some people were confused by the pronunciation of oddBird and said it like Auburd, and I wanted something that was really easy to say. Then we had to file for business name in like two hours, so we were like, oddBird it is. It looks great though in the marketing. We “failed up” with it.
SCS: Sounds like it’s going great. Is there anything else you want to share?
S: We are in the process of getting a patio.
J: Yep, the permit came in. So things are happening!
SCS: So opening in Spring/ Summer?
J: I’m still hoping for the Winter.
S: Yeah, we’ll put some heaters out there.
J: Heaters and picnic tables. Especially before Ice Dogs games, have a little Beer Garden out there.
S: It will be great in Summer too. There aren’t really any patios downtown.
SCS: Sounds awesome! I look forward to enjoying the patio. Thanks for speaking with me.
J: Thank you
Read about our night out at oddBird.