A piece of the Maritimes sailed into Ottawa’s ByWard Market this July and Captains Joel Braunstein and Charles Lemieux were proud to christen their first joint venture, Alexanders Lower Deck. Although the pair graduated from Algonquin College’s hotel and restaurant management program almost two decades apart, their love of the industry, combined with their college education will bring some East Coast flavour to 111 Parent Avenue in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Eight years ago when Lemieux walked into Braunstein’s steakhouse, Loggers Mountain Grill in Cornwall, Ontario, to apply for a bartending job, the two had no idea the impact they would have on each others’ lives. “We just clicked,” describes Braunstein. Lemieux was hired and quickly climbed the ranks at the restaurant.
Braunstein recognized an ambition in his new recruit that singled him out from the rest of the staff. “I identified a great passion,” he says. Braunstein encouraged Lemieux to attend the management program at Algonquin College. Having graduated from the program himself in 1982, Braunstein encouraged Lemieux to attend the program as a way of furthering his knowledge and promised him a job upon completion. It was important for the future partners to both have a formal education to complement their work experiences. “Twenty years later, I am still happy to present my diploma,” Braunstein says.
As a child Lemieux wanted to be an actor, but he says that being in the restaurant business is the next best thing. “You get to wear many hats in this business and become a different character for different situations, it is kind of like show business,” he explains. The program taught Lemieux what hat needs to be donned in what situation along with vital business skills such as marketing, accounting, management skills and human resources. The experience was priceless and prepared him for working in the real world, he says.
Lemieux graduated from his program in 2001 and headed to the East Coast to work at Pacrim Hospitality, where Braunstein was the food and beverage director for 25 different hotels and six restaurants. It was there that the pair shaped the concept for Alexanders Lower Deck, an authentic Maritime restaurant and pub. The partners worked on their plan for three years before arriving in Ottawa, ready to put their dreams in motion.
Braunstein has been working the hospitality industry all his life and applies his vast knowledge to their new venture. “I was born and raised in this business and it’s in your blood or it’s not,” describes Braunstein. He realizes that this field is constantly changing and admits that people who are in the restaurant industry are lagging behind when it comes to new technology. This is where Lemieux comes into play- though lacking in years of experience compared to his partner, Lemieux is able to use his recent education to keep Alexanders Lower Deck up to speed on the changing pace of the restaurant industry. Braunstein points to recently acquired technology that allows staff to sign in for shifts at the restaurant by using their thumbprint. This eliminates from sneaking in late for their shifts by having someone else sign in for them.
Alexanders Lower Deck promotes itself as the only true, authentic Maritime restaurant in Ottawa. They hope to capitalize on the large number of Easterners in the area looking for a place that reminds them of home. The pair’s research indicates that over 650,000 former Maritimers now call eastern and southern Ontario home. The food and the music comes strictly from the East coast and the unique exterior is able to draw the attention of ByWard Market visitors. The restaurant is designed to look like a boat pulling into a dock. As you enter the establishment it appears as though you are walking into a boat’s lower deck. They have also spent hours ensuring that the interior design of the place reflects the Maritime lifestyle. “I have driven the whole coast looking for stuff, like buoys and lobster traps,” Braunstein says.
This new restaurant is a great way to target a niche market, says Meg McCallum, the executive director of the ByWard Market Business Improvement Area. By having a Maritime focus, the restaurant can pull business from people who trace their roots back to the East Coast, both francophone and anglophone alike, she adds.
The ByWard Market is a great place to test out a concept for a new place, as people who come to the area are looking for a place to eat and are eager to try new experiences and restaurants, she says. The Market also plays a role in producing great quality restaurants, as “it provides immediate access to the freshest fruits and vegetables,” says McCallum.
Another key to having a quality business is ensuring that there is a combination of background and knowledge in the industry along with new and creative ideas, she adds.
Professor and Corporate Training Co-coordinator at Algonquin’s School of Hospitality and Tourism, Michael Tarnowski agrees that it is “awesome” to see this type of dynamics working in opening a restaurant.
Tarnowski is excited to see Alexanders Lower Deck open. He has supported the new venture by allowing the duo to test their menu in the school’s kitchen and has sent recent graduates to apply for positions at the restaurant. Tarnowski realizes the potential associated with students who have graduated from the program. Having a college education allows for graduates to go higher than the average person, he says. “Having a diploma is like taking the elevator, you may go in at the same level to start, but you go up a lot faster,” he explains.
Tarnowski can rest assured that Braunstein and Lemieux are living by the advice he gives to his graduating students, “set your goals as high as you want because you can achieve them.”