Jeff O’Reilly is not the same man he was nearly six months ago, when he left his job as longtime general manager of D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub on Sparks Street.
For one thing, there’s 52 less pounds of him. That’s what cumulatively walking 1.75 million steps, or 1,400 kilometres, does for a person on the path to becoming healthier.
As well, he’s no longer putting in the long and late hours that come with a career in the hospitality industry. His new work environment is one of Ottawa’s most beloved rural attractions: Saunders Farm.
On Monday, O’Reilly started his new job working for Mark Saunders and his wife Angela Grant Saunders at their award-winning agri-tourism business, located in the southwest corner of Ottawa in Munster Hamlet. Mark reached out to O'Reilly this past spring about a new craft cider business that Saunders Farm was launching, knowing that O’Reilly’s wealth of experience, knowledge and connections in the alcoholic beverage industry would be a major asset, along with his high-level event planning and community relations work.
After several discussions about creating the right fit, O’Reilly jumped at the chance to work with the couple.
“I love them," he says. "They’re just so positive and have so much energy and enthusiasm. They’re just such exceptional people.”
O’Reilly has been part of the local food and beverage scene since first moving to Ottawa more than 30 years ago. Back then, he was a wide-eyed, long-haired kid from the Northern Ontario mining community of Timmins. It was Goldie Cranston, brother of famed figure skater and artist Toller Cranston, who offered him his first job here at a Malibu Jack’s. There was one condition: he had to cut his hair first.
O’Reilly went on to manage a variety of pubs and restaurants, including D’Arcy McGee’s for more than 20 years. He left in January, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, after his employer made the business decision that it was time for him to move on.
“I completely respect that; I have nothing but great things to say about them,” said O’Reilly, 55. “I learned so much in that time, and I’ve made life-long friendships. Some of the people I worked with are like family to me. So I understand it, I get it; these things happen.”
Rather than wallow, he walked. Everywhere. He also skated almost daily on the historic Rideau Canal and took up snowshoeing in Gatineau Park with his restaurateur friend Randy Fitzpatrick.
“I decided to focus on myself,” explained O’Reilly, who started eating better, getting more rest, staying hydrated and practising mindfulness and gratitude exercises.
“I wanted to get healthier. I wanted to read more. I wanted to just spend more time being a better me."
"Things don’t happen to me; things happen for me."
He chose to see his sudden unemployment as an opportunity, not a crisis.
“Things don’t happen to me; things happen for me. The universe smiles upon us."
As winter turned into spring, O’Reilly explored the city on foot and on bicycle while sharing his adventures with his followers on social media. He made it to the suburbs of Bells Corners, Orléans and Kanata, and everywhere in between.
“I’m feeling at peace with myself, I’m thankful for so much, and I’m falling in love with the city of Ottawa again,” said O’Reilly of his daily excursions. “Not only am I seeing different things, but I’m seeing things differently.”
His favourite discovery remains the graffiti murals, better known as House of Paint, located beneath the Bronson Avenue Bridge and along the banks of the Rideau River.
Some friends lived vicariously through O’Reilly’s social media posts, while others found themselves inspired to head outdoors as well.
“I’ve got really, really good people in my corner, and they’re enjoying what I’m doing, and I’m enjoying what I’m doing," he said of his loyal following.
Sometimes, a career pause is the best way to figure out one’s priorities. O’Reilly realized he’d previously been trying to accomplish too much, and that his efforts had been taking a toll on his overall health.
The certified beer sommelier/instructor and former newspaper beer columnist used to belong to all kinds of boards and committees, on top of his full-time job. He was a longtime co-organizer of the Ringside for Youth fundraiser for BGC Ottawa, even getting his daughter Tegan involved. He's still on the board of the Sparks Street BIA as vice-chair.
“The reason why I didn’t have work-life balance was because of me," he said. "I was overextending myself. If I wasn’t working, I was volunteering, I was teaching, I was parenting. I have always just been go, go, go, and because of that, I missed the time to stop and smell the roses and to just relax and enjoy and just be thankful for what the city offers me and for what’s around.”
O’Reilly did stop and sniff the lilac blooms this past spring. Now, he can enjoy the cheerful (but fragrant-free) sunflowers growing at Saunders Farm.
O’Reilly is in charge of sales, marketing and promotion, and the day-to-day administration for Saunders Cider. He is also heading up business development of both the farm and cidery, working closely with Mark, Angela and their team. The craft cider will be sold in stores and at the farm’s licensed facility at its 100-acre property.
The launch of the new business is just another example of how savvy the Saunderses are as business owners and entrepreneurs, said O’Reilly, who believes the beverages will enhance the special events that take place at the farm, from its legendary Haunting Season in the fall to its Country Christmas season in the winter to its corporate events and weddings.
“As we come out of COVID, fingers crossed, I think there’s also going to be a lot of opportunities for some really cool signature kind of events at Saunders Farm that Ottawa hasn’t seen before,” said O’Reilly.
The Saunderses purchased the Flying Canoe micro-cidery this past spring from owner Pete Rainville and have moved the operation from Spencerville to their 7893 Bleeks Rd. property. They're also preparing to plant orchards in order to eventually harvest their own apples.
“I’m pretty excited to learn about the cider industry,” said O’Reilly.
Yes, O’Reilly is a changed man. He sees the world in a positive light these days, and is touched by all the encouragement he’s received as he’s made the most of his period of unemployment to become the best version of himself.
“People have been so supportive of all this,” he said of his journey. “I’m blessed and I’m thankful and I’m grateful.”