On the Ottawa seafood scene, Jim Foster is what you’d call a big fish.
For years now, the 55-year-old entrepreneur has been the friendly face of Pelican Seafood Market and Grill, a small business that he co-owns with his brother-in-law, Marc Roy.
The fish market and adjoining 60-seat seafood restaurant remain tucked away in a nondescript strip mall south of downtown. Yet, on any given day, the place is bustling with a community of customers – serving between 10,000 and 11,000 people each month.
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What’s the secret?
“Free parking,” quips Foster during an interview at Pelican, located at the Blue Heron Mall on Bank Street, just a few doors down from specialty grocery store Farm Boy.
Foster still remembers his first sale: a piece of sole.
“It was spectacularly mundane,” he says of how the female customer entered the store, ordered her fish, paid for it and then left.
“It was so simple. Looking back, I think that was a sign that things were going to be good.”
Pelican, founded in 1978 by the late Gilles Roy, has been operating for more than 40 years in Ottawa. Over time, it’s grown, shrunk, expanded and expanded some more. In May, it will start offering seafood catering services via its new Pelican food truck, which comes equipped with a full kitchen.
“I always think of myself and Marc as two of the luckiest people in the world that we get to do this for a living,” says Foster. “We joke that we’d otherwise be unemployable.
“We work with great people and have great customers. We take nothing for granted.”
Foster got his start in customer-service jobs as a teenager in Ottawa. He joined Pelican after high school (but not before taking a year to travel to Australia). At that time, in the early 1980s, the store – which was both a fish market and wholesaler – was on Merivale Road.
It was there that Foster fell in love with his boss’s daughter, JoAnne, to whom he’s been married for nearly 31 years and with whom he’s raised three boys. JoAnne ended up exiting the family business for a federal government job.
Each of their sons has gone on to study engineering at Queen’s University. Sebastien, 29, earned a degree in civil engineering, while Emile, 25, went into mining mechanical. Quentin, 20, is finishing his second year in computer engineering.
Engineering happens to be the path that Foster would have followed had he been a stronger student. That’s why he had some doubts when his middle son, Emile, expressed an interest in returning to Pelican.
“As a dad I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, you’re an engineer; you’ve got this great job,’” Foster says of his initial reaction.
Learning new lessons
However, the father changed his mind after his son created and presented a proposal with ideas on how to move the business forward. They hired Emile as general manager.
“He’s been great. My son teaches me new things all the time.”
Pelican has been located on Bank Street, in the Alta Vista area, since the early 1990s. Foster runs the day-to-day operations while Roy works more behind the scenes, handling administration and seafood purchasing. The fish comes from all over Canada.
“You name the province,” says Foster. “Well, maybe not Saskatchewan.”
Pelican has been big on sustainable seafood since before it was mainstream.
“We know where our product comes from, and often we’ll be talking right to the fisherman,” says Foster. “Marc is the best seafood purchaser around.”
Foster remains proud of the positive work environment at Pelican. The business employs a combined part- and full-time staff of about 40.
“For me, feeling successful is being able to provide a stable job for a lot of people, where everyone feels empowered,” he says. “We had a new employee say to me not too long ago, ‘When you guys hired me, I was in a really low place but coming here to work every day makes me feel better.’ That’s a pretty nice thing to hear.”
Five things to know about Jim Foster
1. His father, Maurice Foster, served as a Liberal MP for the northern Ontario riding of Algoma for more than 25 years (1968-93). Foster believes he learned the arts of consensus-building and how to get along with everyone from his dad.
2. Earlier this spring, a customer accidentally crashed her car into Pelican. Fortunately, no one was injured and the damage to the building was covered by insurance. “We had people calling to see if everyone was all right,” says Foster, who was touched by his customers’ concern. “I think our business really feels like a community.”
3. Foster plays the keyboard in a rock band with his buddies, but don’t go looking to become a roadie; they jam just for fun. “A lot of guys do Sudoku, but I try and figure out how to play Let It Bleed by the Stones,” jokes Foster.
4. Foster co-starred in an episode of Chris Knight’s TV show Licence to Grill. The Winter BBQ Special episode involved him facing the elements and barbequing in the snow with chef and host Rob Rainford and chef Ned Bell at a cottage in Calabogie. It opens with Foster enjoying a bubble bath at home.
5. Foster loves reading (he plows through his wife’s assigned book club novels), travelling (the family visited China when their youngest was just six) and cooking (his favourite dish to make is paella, over an open fire). Despite his many interests, he’s not looking to retire. “I want to work for a long time,” he says.