Being part of Ottawa’s ‘tourist community’ helps keep Sarah Chown motivated at the Metropolitain

Sarah Chown is the owner of the Metropolitain Brasserie. File photo
Editor's Note

The challenges facing the restaurant industry are almost too many to list. In fact, given inflation, a tight labour market, increasing fees, leftover pandemic debt and a host of other items, you’d be tempted to wonder what keeps many Ottawa restaurateurs going. OBJ decided to check in with a few to see what keeps them inspired.

The post-pandemic challenges still aren’t over in the restaurant industry, according to Sarah Chown, managing partner of the Metropolitain Brasserie and Restaurant on Sussex Drive. But while costs are high, so are spirits as the fall and upcoming holiday season bring customers back into restaurants. OBJ’s Mia Jensen interviewed Chown about recent trends within the local industry and what she’s looking forward to in the year ahead. 

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: How have things been going in the last year or so?

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A: I think things have been tough for our sector in general and (Metropolitain is) no exception to that rule. Costs are up for everything across the board for us, just like everyone else. Rising costs of goods, utilities, rent, labour, insurance and then debt servicing on top of that are really affecting people and their bottom line. Revenue figures for a lot of people are up, but that’s not necessarily translating into bottom-line growth, which is not ideal. 

But all around, we’re happy to be open and back in business. 

Q: What kinds of trends have you been noticing?

A: I would say spring and early summer were definitely good. August was an interesting one; you started to see some downtrending there. The weather was not really cooperative for patio season, so it certainly wasn’t our best summer. 

The weather was one factor, but then also people were being more budget-conscious, which was definitely reflective of sales for us. We’re a little unique because we have a big event space here where there are receptions, conferences and things like that. That’s something that sets us apart and allows us to bring in those sales, especially in the fall months when there’s a big conference season. September until just before Christmas, we’re seeing a lot of conferences in town and we cater a lot. We’re quite busy, which is great. 

Walk-in traffic is not where we need it to be in terms of the customers coming in for dinner. It isn’t where we’d like to see compared to the past few years. But Christmas parties are right around the corner and that’s something to look forward to. We’re seeing a little bit of a lack of lunchtime Christmas parties but, overall, it’s certainly better than it has looked since the pandemic years. 

Q: In general, what kind of unexpected positives have you been seeing?

A: The main positive is a real sense of community that we’ve developed with our customer base. Those people that we used to see regularly, we’re seeing even more now. They’re pretty dedicated and they’re spending their dollars with the people they’re loyal to. That’s certainly something positive and refreshing.

I think it’s also really evident that Canadians in Ottawa still really do value the dining-out experience, even though it may be harder for them to make that decision financially to go out. There’s still something there that’s really special. Even for people who only go out once or twice a year, (it’s) become even more important for those people because it’s been lacking for so long. 

I just love being part of this downtown tourist core area, where you’re seeing people come in from different cities. We were lacking that for so long and it’s nice to be a part of that. They’ve never been to Ottawa and they ask you for suggestions of where to go, what to see and where else to eat. Just being part of that tourist community is really rewarding.

Q: You’re also the Ottawa chair of the Ontario Restaurant and Motel Association. In terms of that community, what kinds of positive things do you see coming up on the horizon?

A: From an industry perspective, I think going forward and coming out of this is the idea of all of us not operating in silos but working together for a common goal. We’re really a big family in the restaurant business. I think that’s a super-positive thing to come out of this. We all have the same goals and we want everybody to survive. We’re willing to do what it takes to help each other out, provide suggestions and listen to each other to help get everybody through. It really goes back to that sense of community. 

Q: What’s driving you to keep going despite the challenges?

A: I can’t imagine doing anything else, to be perfectly honest with you. What keeps me coming back every day is my customers. I absolutely love them; they’re my family. I feel the same way about the staff. Seeing them grow and many of them take this on as a career, that’s what really keeps me coming back. Watching the staff grow and work in a place that they really enjoy and having those amazing customers. 

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