Much like with the COVID vaccine supply, the owners of Corner Peach know how hard it is to keep up with demand.
That’s why Emma Campbell and Caroline Murphy are in the process of taking over the vacant storefront immediately adjacent to their existing establishment, thereby doubling the size of their loveable little corner store nestled in the heart of Ottawa’s Chinatown district. The space opened up last fall when the former tenant, a bike shop, moved to a new location.
The expansion will allow the small businesswomen to run a larger, more efficient commercial kitchen that can satisfy the demand for locally prepared food.
“We’re pumping out as much as we can right now but it never seems to be enough,” said Murphy in an interview with Campbell at Corner Peach, located on the southwest corner of Somerset Street West and Booth Street. “It’s really tight in here and I just can’t wait to have the space to do things properly.”
The business first opened in early 2019 as a small but bustling neighbourhood bistro. At just 850 square feet, it was hitting restaurant capacity on a regular basis. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, settling in like that customer who lingers far, far too long at their table.
The women went from being very busy to bouncing off the walls with frustration and boredom during the first lockdown. They resented being at the mercy of government orders; they wanted to be the ones in control.
“We needed to take our future into our own hands and bite the bullet,” Campbell explained of their decision to reinvent Corner Peach as a corner store that sells food, wine and beer.
By changing their business model, they were able to serve their loyal customers again, along with new customers, and slowly bring their staff back while still maintaining the same level of revenue. At Corner Peach, it's common for customers to line up outside the store (currently, they can't have more than two visitors inside at a time). Products are often in limited supply and sell out quickly. Particularly popular are the freshly baked pastries, including donuts and sourdough bread, as well as the beer and wine.
The store also sells prepared foods, frozen items, pantry staples and some of the ingredients that Corner Peach uses in its own cooking. As well, it offers a small take-out menu.
It’s been a gruelling 13 months for the owners, who have been working long hours without proper holidays, and who continue to spend a good chunk of their free time focused on their expansion.
“We’re pretty exhausted,” Murphy acknowledged.
“Yeah, it’s hard,” Campbell agreed.
"We always go back to asking ourselves, ‘What would we want if we were the customer living in this neighbourhood?’"
They say they’re constantly coming up with new ideas, reassessing them and adopting a trial-and-error approach to running their business.
“We always go back to asking ourselves, ‘What would we want if we were the customer living in this neighbourhood?’” said Murphy.
The co-owners, both 34, became friends while students of Ashbury College. They each acquired extensive experience working in the industry with the dream of running a small restaurant together.
Once they decided upon 802 Somerset St. W. as the spot for their business, neither was afraid of taking a hands-on approach toward turning the space into a place they could call their own. You name it – plumbing, electrical, painting, drilling, demolition, tiling – they were ready to do their part. They remain equally involved in the "bare-bones" retrofit and renovation work currently being done to their adjoining space next door. They're also working closely with the building owner, with whom they have a good relationship.
“We’re used to hustling and to doing everything ourselves,” said Campbell. “It helps because, when something does go wrong, we’re not relying on somebody else to fix the problem.”
The women’s willingness to do physical labour and grunt work is all part of their prudent approach to running a small business. They also made sure they had a financial buffer to fall back on when they first opened, in case the business didn’t take off.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. You might unlock your door and nobody comes through,” Campbell explained.
The owners will use the additional space as room for both their kitchen and food store. Their current store space will be reverted back into a restaurant, for when people once again find small spaces to be cosy, not dangerous.
Corner Peach is an inviting place to walk into, filled with curious knick-knacks that the owners have either picked up over the years or have been gifted, in anticipation of their plan to start a business together. They used to have homemade canned peaches in stock, made with a recipe passed down by Murphy’s grandmother, but their supply sold out at the start of the pandemic and they haven’t had time to prepare more.
The women have a huge following on social media and have made efforts to give back, specifically to Cornerstone Housing for Women.
Somerset Street Chinatown BIA executive director Grace Xin says Corner Peach has been a “delightful addition” to the neighbourhood.
“The community-friendly mindset, unique and authentic offerings, creative and solid business approach demonstrated by the Corner Peach are so inspiring to all of us,” Xin stated in an email. “Yes, a pandemic can slow our life down, but it will not diminish the strength, spirit, and smartness of the main-street small businesses. Corner Peach's growth during the most challenging time epitomizes the resilience of these entrepreneurs of whom we are so proud and grateful to have.”