Kichesippi Beer co-founder Paul Meek on a quest to become the 'Ottawa thing'

Meek
Kichesippi Beer co-founder Paul Meek. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Kichesippi Beer Co. owner Paul Meek has never forgotten his humble beginnings in the brewery business – as a school mascot.

He entertained the masses by volunteering as “the Husky” while a student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. He eventually ditched the hot and uncomfortable costume but continued pumping up the fans and sports teams in his own wacky garb, until he caught the eye of corporate marketers who wanted him to promote their products on campus.

Finally, Alexander Keith’s Brewery came calling, offering him a $500 gift card and 25 cases of beer.

Meek has stuck with the industry ever since, acquiring the knowledge and networks to start his own brewery, Kichesippi, nine years ago. 

“When we first opened, the first two questions we got were: What does it mean and why did you spell it wrong?” the 46-year-old entrepreneur and Stittsville resident says during an interview at his new west-end location, which features a brewery, tap room and retail store.

Kichesippi means “Great River” in the Algonquin language of the Kichesipirini people who lived farther up the Ottawa River near Pembroke. The more common English spelling is Kitchissippi, as in the municipal ward in which Meek’s business was previously located.

Kichesippi has taken over 10,000 square feet of space that used to be a car dealership at 2265 Robertson Rd. He delayed his opening until June due to the paperwork, permit and licensing process.

The business has moved from the Carling Avenue and Queensway area, where it had been located on a dead-end road in an industrial park. 

“Even though we were there for years, not a single person ever said, ‘I was walking by and noticed you were here,’” says Meek. “You really had to go out of your way to find us. We were tucked away.”

Until recently, Meek’s business partner was his late wife, Kelly, with whom he proudly ran their family-owned enterprise together with input from their son, Alexander, 19. Their craft brewery was among the first in Ottawa (it sold its inaugural keg to Johnny Farina restaurant on April 29, 2010). 

Today, Meek employs about 20 people.

“It’s a fun product. We’re not the get-drunk-and-party beer, we’re ‘good times with good friends.’ That’s what we’re about,” says Meek.

“I get to go to work every day and talk about delicious products with interesting people. It’s never boring. There are stressful days, there are crazy days, but it’s never boring.”

Strong local presence

He remembers years ago listening to the head of a major brewery put it in perspective when he said: “I want you to think about that guy who’s paying his bills and feeding his family while having to sell cottage cheese. You have a really exciting and successful product that people want to talk to you about.”

Meek says he isn’t currently looking to follow in the foamy footsteps of competitor Beau’s by expanding beyond the Ottawa market. He’s working on building a brand that retains a strong local presence.

“I’m more focused on selling beer here and taking care of our home front,” he explains. “We just want to do a good job in this city. If it makes sense for us to sell more outside of Ottawa later on, then great. I still think we haven’t accomplished the original goal that Kelly and I talked about, of being that ‘Ottawa thing.’

“She used to say, ‘I want to be ‘the Keith’s of Ottawa,’” recalls Meek. “She was a proud Nova Scotia girl.”

Kelly, whom Meek met at university, died April 8. She had suffered for 20 years from a neuromuscular disorder that caused her muscles and nerves to slowly weaken and waste away. Her diagnosis, made two years into the Meeks’ marriage, motivated the young family to leave the Toronto-area rat race and come to Ottawa.

Even during her illness, she remained Meek’s sounding board for ideas and made some of the business decisions.

Kelly, who spent the last 14 years in a wheelchair, had been very excited when she finally got to visit the Bells Corners location. She passed away two days later. The family had seen a decline in her health but was not expecting her to die so soon. 

“It was like a tank of water with a slow drip on the tap,” says Meek. “It’s dripping, dripping, dripping, and then, one day, there’s one last drop.”

Meek will launch a new beer in honour of Kelly on International Women’s Day next March 8. It will be named after the origin of her Irish Gaelic name: Warrior Woman.

Five things to know about Paul Meek

1. He was born in Jamaica, where his father – a banker with Scotiabank – had been transferred for work.

2. He was inducted into the Order of Ottawa in 2015, alongside the likes of Bryan Murray and Allan Rock.

3. Surprisingly, Meek is not a Forty Under 40 recipient. He applied once, at age 38, and got turned down.

4. The inspiration for Kichesippi comes from Meek’s childhood summers at his mother’s family farm in Quyon, Que. They’d often go to the Ottawa River to wash up after their chores. They’d also visit The Pop Shoppe, which inspired his Harvey and Vern’s Olde Fashioned Soda venture.

5. His best advice for entrepreneurs: Get a good accountant and get a good lawyer. “There are just things that they know how to do.”​​​