Hintonburg’s Meat Press taking a bite out of Ottawa’s lunch market

To celebrate Small Business Week, OBJ will publish stories of the successes and challenges faced by some of the city's entrepreneurs in the coming days. Today's feature looks at the lessons the founder of a popular sandwhich shop learned in his first year.

According to the old adage, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Etienne Cuerrier’s loyal customers would beg to differ.

Mr. Cuerrier, the owner of Meat Press Creative Charcuterie and Sandwich Shop in Hintonburg, celebrated his first year in business in early October. The longtime chef at well-known restaurants such as L’Orée du Bois, Soif and the Wakefield Mill knew he was onto something when his incentive program – buy 10 sandwiches, get one free – generated about 40 giveaways in the first month alone.

“That was very impressive,” the affable entrepreneur says with a chuckle. “We’re in a small neighbourhood, off the (main) street. You have to keep (customers) coming back if you want to make money.”

Located in a small space tucked away on Armstrong Street, a block north of Wellington Street West near Somerset, Meat Press has become a go-to lunch destination for everyone from nearby office workers and store owners to other chefs from establishments such as Allium and Whalesbone who stop in for a bite before their shifts.

“That told us that we were doing something good,” Mr. Cuerrier, 32, says of attracting clientele from within his own industry.

Indeed, business has been very good for the father of three youngsters aged 6, 2 and three months, who chose a bit of an unusual strategy dictated largely by his hectic home life.

Instead of targeting the dinner crowd like most new eateries, Meat Press serves only lunch. After years as a chef who often worked into the wee hours of the morning, Mr. Cuerrier decided things had to change when he struck out on his own.

“It was a bit impossible to have a family life,” he explains. “We wanted to establish lunch because I think it’s the best way to get known. It was a big challenge because all the restaurants I worked at … lunch was never a big hit. For us to survive (serving) no alcohol, only doing lunch was a big challenge. It pushed us to see what people like, what can we do that is different, that will interest them, that they’ll want to come back.”

Mr. Cuerrier and his team of four chefs have managed to do exactly that, serving up an array of sandwiches featuring fresh meat from nearby farmers and homemade ingredients with a twist, such as mayonnaise infused with bacon or duck fat “just to give it a little kick.”

Almost everything is prepared in house, he notes, except the mustard because, “I don’t know how to make it.” He used to bake his own bread but found the process too time-consuming, so nearby bakery Art Is In now supplies that part of the sandwich equation.

Locally raised meat and produce might cost a little more, he says, but it’s worth it.

“To stay on top, you have to start with very good products,” says Mr. Cuerrier, whose wife Myriam Campeau also helps out around the shop and does the books.

“And that’s what we did. I think people notice it.”

He also understands that restaurants, like sandwiches, aren’t very appealing if they go stale.

To that end, Mr. Cuerrier expects Meat Press to get its liquor licence before the end of October, at which point he will start serving dinner. He plans to limit dinners to three nights a week at first to see how things go, with a focus on “family dinner-style meals” – for example, seafood casseroles or duck cassoulets that a whole table can share.

“It’s basically trying to bring back the French cuisine and the good times people had, staying a long time at the table and enjoying a prepared meal,” he explains, noting that a cassoulet takes three days to properly prepare. “It’s something people won’t do as much at home, especially in the age group that we’re aiming for. It’s stuff that people don’t have time to do anymore.”

Mr. Cuerrier credits the Business Development Bank of Canada and Futurpreneur Canada for providing him with the level of seed funding – $45,000 – that one of the big chartered banks likely wouldn’t. He has no regrets about his venture, though if he had to do it over again, he says, he would have been “a little more aggressive” in launching a dinner menu sooner.

His advice to aspiring restaurateurs? Review your business plan early and often to ensure you’re staying on track.

“The business can grow faster than you anticipate,” he says.

“In the first week, we started selling out. I didn’t have the time to close the kitchen and make those big changes that I needed to do.”