When Joanne Toupin and Beau Burton opened up Sleepy Owl Bread on Wall Street five years ago, the multigrain loaves and other scratch-made pastries were a relatively easy sell — it was the location that wasn’t.
Back then, the block of Wall just south of St. Matthews Avenue was mostly industrial, with most of the spaces in the bakery’s building serving as storefronts and offices for a motley crew of tradespeople: arborists, millworkers, concrete companies, a semi-retired woodworker. They weren’t exactly the types of businesses that demanded or required foot traffic, and the only business somewhat similar to a bakery — an organic food store a few doors down—closed up the month Toupin and Barton opened.
"Customers would ask us, ‘Are you totally sure about this?’" Toupin said. For at least a few months, they weren’t. But now, nobody asks that: with locally owned small businesses — a New York-style pizzeria, a pioneering local brewery, the bakery—thriving, and more—a kombucha taproom, a dine-in cafe — planning to open in the coming months, Wall Street’s stock is rising, fast.
"It was getting harder and harder to find what we needed," said Michael Phillips, who plans on opening a cafe in the same building as Sleepy Owl in the coming months. "We liked this spot. It’s a great, happening strip, and there’s lots of business being drawn in."
It makes sense, says Joseph Kornelsen, a West End resident and the current executive director of the West End Biz. The one-way street is close to Portage Avenue and its public transit options, is accessible by foot or by bike, and the roughly 40,000 residents who live in the West End tend to enthusiastically support local businesses.
"What we’re seeing in the south Wall area has been happening for the last three years or so," Kornelsen said. "But, quite frankly, I don’t think we ever expected to see this explosion of activity and really exciting businesses."
One reason for that explosion is the fact that, compared with the rest of Winnipeg, opening a small business in the West End comes with a relatively low price-tag: lease rates per square foot cost $6 to $8 less than the rest of the city.
It’s something Paul Taylor—who owns the 11,000-square-foot building that houses Sleepy Owl, Wall Street Slice, Wolseley Kombucha, and soon, Phillips’ cafe — knows can make or break a local entrepreneur. Aside from his role as president of Clear Spring Ice & Rentals, Taylor, 36, also started the Brickhouse Gym, which has two locations in the city.
Taylor said he knew that charging unreasonable rent would hamstring young businesses, so he’s worked with the tenants to reach sensible terms that allow both of them to thrive. Though the ownership is trying to make a profit, Taylor said they are not trying to get rich, or to gouge people. Instead, they’re trying to develop long-lasting relationships with tenants with a vision for their businesses, who in turn provide services to the residents, workers, and passersby who frequent the strip each day.
"If my tenants are successful, they’re more likely to stay there," he said. "I think that we’ve created a space for local businesses to establish themselves. Other areas might on the surface seem more desirable, but the rents there are such a barrier."
Another bonus for entrepreneurs is the strip’s zoning, which allows for light manufacturing. That gave Barn Hammer Brewery, the province’s first taproom, the perfect location to make and sell its product three years ago, and will soon do the same for Wolseley Kombucha.
Owner Michelle Leclair, who’d been brewing the fermented tea since 2016, said the rent a few blocks away, at Westminster and Sherbrook, ran as high as $34 dollars per square foot in one location she considered, and the zoning on Wall will allow her business to both brew and serve kombucha with significantly less overhead. Her taproom will open in January.
"I think we just recognized the potential the street had," she said.
So did Quinn Ferguson, a staff member at Red Ember, which runs a pizza shop at the Forks and an acclaimed pizza truck that roves throughout the city. Steffen Zinn, the company’s founder, said Ferguson spotted a vacant storefront for rent on Kijiji, before sending it to Zinn.
“I thought, ‘That’s the spot’” - Steffen Zinn, Red Ember founder
"I thought, ‘That’s the spot,’" Zinn said, and in May 2018, the company took possession and began working on what this year was unveiled as Wall Street Slice, a throwback, New York pizzeria with a playful approach to pies.
He said that by looking at the success of businesses like Sleepy Owl and Barn Hammer, it was clear there was a clientele hungry for more local options nearby.
"And the rents haven’t caught up to the reputation that’s building here," he added.
Zinn said that he’d always hoped to open in the West End, which he said was a community that deserves access to small businesses owned and operated by people who live in the neighbourhood.
"There’s a certain soul in the West End," he said. "It has more soul to it than the cookie-cutter boxes that pop up in every parking lot and shopping centre in the city. The pride and loyalty here have been unlike anywhere else."
There’s also a type of symbiosis between the businesses that has helped keep them strong: Barn Hammer’s oatmeal stout is a key ingredient in a bread made weekly at Sleepy Owl, and at Wall Street Slice, the beer is on tap; Phillips plans on selling the bakery’s bread and pastry, and the kombucha from next door, at his cafe; Zinn hired Brothers Lock, also on Wall Street, to secure the restaurant; and Barn Hammer’s tables and bartop were manufactured by Faveri’s Wood Furniture, located — you guessed it — on Wall Street.
"We were totally unsure of how it would go when we signed our lease here," Toupin of Sleepy Owl said. "There was not a lot of faith that the West End could support small artisan, niche business."
On Wall Street, the skepticism has abated: the location is no longer such a hard sell.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.