It used to be an after-hours speakeasy called The Dugout, a place where the railwaymen could slip in for a celebratory or solitary shot, if they had the key. Then it became home to the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Ultimately, the irony was too much for Bruce Linton to ignore. “I didn’t know who or how, but I knew I was going to put a bar in that basement,” says the well-known entrepreneur.
Sure enough, The Post Office Cocktail Bar in Smiths Falls opened less than a month ago, tucked into the basement of the old post office, circa 1894, designed by Parliamentary architect Thomas Fuller and a designated heritage building.
Linton first noticed the structure in 2013, when he was scouting a suitable location for his cannabis startup. Five years later, he purchased the run-down building with the express purpose of restoring it to its original glory.
He describes the project as not only a labour of love for the building itself, but also a tribute to the town that welcomed his team into the old Hershey Factory, which became home to Canopy Growth Corp., the company Linton founded.
Linton began restoration of the post office in February 2019 and spared no expense in the project, which was completed about eight months later, after Linton had left his post as CEO of Canopy.
Today, the iconic building features an executive apartment on the third floor, three rental apartments on the second floor and office space on the ground floor. In 2021, the restoration was recognized with the Lieutenant Governor’s Heritage Award for Excellence in conservation.
With the restoration complete and the building occupied, the last piece of the project became the bar. It, too, has kept its mystique. It’s accessed from Russell Street through a discreet door with gold lettering, down a flight of stairs and through another door that opens into an elegant, cozy space overseen by one of Ottawa’s first female bar leads, Jillian Dagenais.
It’s one of five establishments that have opened on Russell Street in the past three years, offering food and drink. It’s a development the town is welcoming.
“The more options we have in town, the less likely residents will leave to enjoy food and entertainment offerings. And, alternatively, (it) draws in residents and visitors from the region,” says Julia Crowder, manager of economic development and tourism with the town.
In fact, there already was a bar next door to the post office that had opened just before COVID, had weathered the pandemic and was becoming something of a music destination.
“(Linton) didn’t want to compete and so he offered me the bar and of course I said yes, though I had no idea how I was going to do it,” chuckles Pat Maloney, owner of the neighbouring establishment, Bowie’s. “The first person that popped into my head was Jillian.”
Dagenais, who is also Maloney’s cousin, had already proven her cocktail chops in Ottawa several times over. At the same time, Maloney had reached the point where he needed some help at Bowie’s, so he figured Dagenais could fill in for him while she consulted with Linton’s contractors over the final decor of the post office bar she would take over.
“I talked to everyone when I was working at Bowie’s. I got to meet people and do the foot-on-the-ground marketing, but then I really surprised everyone,” recalls Dagenais.
The look and feel of The Post Office Cocktail Bar and its offerings are very different from other establishments along Russell’s food row. There’s a warm, muted elegance built into the space, which offers a range of classic cocktails alongside an eclectic menu of small plates.
“I’m going for quality over quantity in an intimate space and giving people something that’s a bit elevated,” describes Dagenais, an award-winning mixologist with 20 years of hospitality experience.
Linton is foregoing a lease for now until the bar becomes established.
“Businesses fail because they get weakened by hefty leases. I’d sooner have a tenant that operates for 20 years and forgo a lease for the first little while,” he explains. “It’s kind of a co-op bar right now.”
Naturally outgoing and charismatic, Dagenais is intent on building collaborative relationships throughout the town and the region.
“I’m trying to stick as local as possible. I buy my meat at Valley Custom Cutting and my cheese at the Perth Cheese Shop. I love that small town situation. I love walking into a store, talking to the owner, trying the product. I could order from a supplier, but what’s the fun in that?” she shrugs.
The personal touch is also good for the bottom line. The independent businesses support each other on social media and promote one another with customers.
“I haven’t had to pay for any marketing to date and I’m busy,” remarks Dagenais.
The bar also offers a Bottle Shop, with a rotating selection of curated wines and other beverages available for purchase.
Dagenais joins a whole new crop of business owners in Smiths Falls. “I just want to be part of the growth, I want to be involved in it, that’s why I’m doing this,” she says.
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