Pop-up spirit, long-term resolve
Owners of new Transcona hub for all things local buoyed by neighbourhood’s warm welcome
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Dylan and Alexis Witt are the owners of Wittypeg, a new gift shop at 129 Regent Ave. E. that some have described as a permanent pop-up market, given the wide range of made-in-Manitoba goods adorning the shelves.
The married couple’s original intention was to begin welcoming customers in early December, ahead of holiday gift-giving. Unfortunately, a series of delays scuttled that plan.
First they had difficulties with their cable provider, which meant they wouldn’t be able to process debit and credit transactions. Next, they were informed there was a problem with the installation of their exterior sign; specifically, that the temperature had to be warmer than -10 C for an extended period, in order for it to adhere properly to the stand-alone building’s brick facade.
No, not exactly what one wants to hear, in the throes of a Winnipeg winter, Dylan says with a chuckle.
A few more projected dates came and went, so it wasn’t until Jan. 11 that they were finally able to celebrate their grand opening.
Well, you know how it’s said good things come to those who wait? In the case of the Witts, that “good thing” turned out to be a bright-pink garden statue perfectly mimicking their neck of the woods’ unofficial mascot.
“We got it at an antique shop on Main Street, just north of the Perimeter, the first week of January,” he says, nodding toward a 1.3-metre-tall flamingo fashioned out of sheet metal, resting near the front door. “We knew we had to have it the second we saw it, what with all the flamingo jokes associated with Transcona. Except if we’d been open already, it’s unlikely we would have been out shopping, so finding it was definitely a lucky break.”
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Dylan, 29, wanted to be an entrepreneur “forever,” or at least, since he took an introduction to business course, after he graduated from Kildonan-East Collegiate, 12 years ago. He wasn’t sure what that would entail, exactly, but an idea began to take root in the summer of 2018, when he and Alexis were frequenting farmers’ markets and craft shows in and around the city, on a fairly regular basis.
“To put it simply, I was constantly being blown away by just how many of the products we spotted were locally made, as well as the wide variety that was available,” he says, standing behind the counter of the 1,300-square-foot premises, which, in a previous life, housed a hydroponics operation. (Don’t be too surprised if, at some point, we’re interrupted by a person popping in to ask about soil or plant nutrients, still a semi-common occurrence, he says.)
“What I started thinking was, how great would it be to have a place that brought all those things under one roof, so people who enjoy buying local wouldn’t have to waste gas driving all over town to find them?”
They spent much of 2019 piecing together a business plan. That was, when they weren’t returning home from one of their outings, with, say, bags of Utoffeea toffee, packages of Prairie Quinoa or bottles of 1882 Fruit-based Hot Sauce to sample, you know, in the name of research.
Like scores of people, they went through “a bit of a mental roller coaster” when COVID-19 struck the following year, which coincided with Alexis’s mom getting seriously ill. Thankfully, his mother-in-law lived long enough to see the two of them tie the knot, in the summer of 2020, he says.
“Then Alexis got pregnant — our son Theo just turned 18 months old — so it wasn’t until last summer that we finally got back to trying to figure out how to turn our dream into reality.”
The Witts, who reside in Elmwood, checked out a few different areas of the city, before choosing to set up shop in Transcona, or “God’s Country,” as the locals call it.
“This is such a great part of town, and even during the renovation stage, when all we had was a sheet of paper in the front window reading, ‘something new is coming,’ people were knocking on the door, to wish us luck,” he says. As for the tag Wittypeg, which riffs on their surname, they actually came up with that years ago while playing Animal Crossing, a video game that requires players to devise names for on-screen villages and islands.
Taking a visitor on a quick tour, he begins along a wall entirely reserved for foodstuffs. There one will find the aforementioned toffee and quinoa, alongside sourced goods such as Headingley’s Jacked Up Jill coffee, Roland’s Border Hills honey and Middlebro’s Von Slick’s finishing butter, the latter of which was featured on a November 2022 episode of Dragon’s Den, during which one of the dragons offered the owners a cool quarter of a million dollars for a 33 per cent share of the company. Thanks, but no thanks, came their answer.
On the opposite wall are various bath and body goods, including Beard & Brawn shaving accessories, produced in Winnipeg, and artisanal soaps by a Lorette-based enterprise called Smooch. Like most of what’s on-hand, the Witts sell each of those on an agreed-upon, consignment basis.
“And down the middle we have apparel and housewares, including our own line of swag,” he says, running his hand along an aluminum clothing rack well-stocked with T-shirts and hoodies boasting “Wittypeg” across the chest. Talk about witty; steps away is a display marked Cattabis Catnip, a cheeky venture that sells feline treats shaped like bongs, pipes and marijuana joints.
“We’ve been adding new items almost weekly,” he continues, pausing to assist a customer interested in works by Margie Lucier, a Winnipeg artist who, among other things, paints intricate images on canvases no larger than a credit card. “The number of people reaching out to inquire about getting their stuff in the store has been a bit overwhelming, but exciting at the same time.”
Shae Finlay is the owner of Crafthouse Collective, a home-based venture that turns out crystal-infused, soy-wax candles. She was driving past the store a few days after it opened, and noticed the exterior sign that reads, in part, “Local goods, done right.”
“I live nearby, so I dropped in the next day, to explain to Dylan what I’m all about, and to leave some samples of different scents and styles,” says Finlay, who took up candle-making as a hobby four years ago, and converted her pastime into a business in 2020, after friends and family, to whom she regularly gifted her “leftovers,” repeatedly told her that her candles were too good to be given away for free.
“He thought it was a cool idea, and agreed to stock them, almost immediately,” she continues, noting every last one of her candles is one-of-a-kind, owing to how she re-purposes vintage glass vessels, which she gleefully scoops up at second-hand stores, to serve as her holders. “I was previously in the LOVE (Locally Operated Vendor Emporium) store in Garden City, but after it moved, I’d mainly been selling at craft markets. But since I live so close, this is a match made in heaven, pretty much.”
One of the Witts’ future goals is to add a few tables and chairs to serve as a small café area, once they secure the proper licensing. That way, people hemming and hawing over what flavour of tea or coffee to buy would have the opportunity to taste it, first. Additionally, they would love to enter into an association with an artisanal ice cream shop such as Chaeban.
Past that, they are “super” looking forward to their first summer as business owners and, especially, June’s always popular Hi Neighbour Festival.
“The main reason we chose Transcona is because we knew people living here really support their own, plus there’s a ton of foot traffic along this main drag, as soon as the weather starts to get nice,” Dylan says, mentioning they’ve been warmly received by neighbouring businesses Eastend Meats & Sausage, Santa Lucia and Choy’s Chinese Food, all of which have called that stretch of Regent Avenue home for years.
“We presently live 15 minutes away but I guess our ultimate dream would be to get a house in the area, nice and close, and become even more a part of the community.”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Sunday, February 19, 2023 11:25 AM CST: Fixes byline